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Book Review: The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, by Matthea Harvey, illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel

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Caitlin Minamiji, age 10: At the beginning of The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, the Little General is finishing his tea while watching his favorite program, Order in the Wilderness. That episode was about lemmings. Lemmings are very cute, and they follow anything anywhere. The little general first sees The Giant Snowflake hovering over his flowers. He draws his sword and shouts “Get off of my flowers!” And he heads down to the battlefield. The Little General and the Giant Snowflake is good for a bedtime story for kids under the age of 8.

The war is one of conflicting ideologies, with one side wishing to impose its view of order upon the other. However, in contrast to the pointless battles of belief in our world, the war in The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, written by Matthea Harvey and illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel, is entirely one-sided, bloodless, and reaches a delightful conclusion.

The title character of Little General and the Giant Snowflake is a rigid ideologue whose approach to diplomacy is summed up in his conversation with one of his soldiers, Sergeant Samantha. “’Sergeant Samantha,’ barked the little general. ‘What are we fighting about today?’ … ‘I believe we’re fighting about the imagination again,’ said Sergeant Samantha. ‘The usual position I assume?’ asked the general. ‘Yes. We don’t believe in it. They do.’”

The war between the Realists, led by the little general, is a one-sided battle against the Dreamers, a group whose lives incorporate the imaginary constructs denied by the Realists. While the Realists assemble for battle every day at 4:00, their maneuvers are restricted to the practice of drills since the Dreamers simply won’t fight.

Matthea Harvey is a poet and instructor of poetry, and her skillful use of language and rhythm sets the pace and flow of the story. Early passages about the little general and the Realist army are clipped and ordered with a rhythm that is enhanced by frequent alliteration. “He noted with pleasure that the petunias along his pathway formed a perfect line.”

It is almost impossible to read sentences such as this aloud without emphasizing the staccato “P”. However, when the author reaches the descriptions of the Dreamers, the cadence slows, and the language is ripe with round vowels. “They didn’t wear uniforms. They didn’t practice formations and they were always playing games. One of their favorites was “The Bee Game,” where half the army pretended to be flowers and the other half came and tickled them, pretending to get nectar from under their armpits.”

While the language shifts are subtle, and Harvey avoids slipping into the singsong rhythm endemic in picture books, the changes in rhythm bring the story to life when read aloud.

Zechel’s charming black and white drawings are filled with delightful details that enhance the story. For example, in the house of Sergeant Samantha, motifs reflecting her crush on the little general appear throughout her living room, including a military mustache on the Mona Lisa. As Harvey shifts language to emphasize the change between the Realists and the Dreamers, Zechel uses line and shading in a similar manner. Early scenes with the Realists employ bold outlines, stark contrast, and precise angles; the first depiction of the Dreamers, in contrast, is drawn with a light hand in soft shades and wavering outlines. As the book progresses, and the imagination works its way into the lives of the Realists, the lines and shading shift to reflect the change.

In fact, my only criticism of the book is that its compact size does not allow Zechel’s illustrations to shine as brightly as they perhaps would in a full-sized picture book. However, the small format may enhance the charm. The dream-like quality of the illustrations coupled with the deceptive simplicity of the story reminded me of Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince.

Tin House lists The Little General and the Giant Snowflake as suitable for all ages. While I can’t be certain of its appeal to teens, the book did charm my 10 year old daughter and has become a new favorite for my four year old. More importantly, I have been able to read it multiple times aloud without wanting to hurl the book across the room and without being tempted to skip passages.

While young children are unlikely to grasp the lessons of tolerance and the importance of imagination, they will be captivated by the fanciful story and illustrations. When my youngest saw the illustration in which the Realist soldiers reveal that they, too, have snowflakes that follow them, she shouted out, “Look, mommy, they’re Dreamers!”

The book may be a bit too long for toddlers and the subtle black and white drawings will probably not hold the attention of those younger than three or four. However, for families looking for a charming bedtime story or a new tradition, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake fills the need admirably. One benefit to the small size of the book – it would make an ideal stocking stuffer.

A final note: “It’s crazy; I like it!” – Sierra Minamiji, age 4

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