Little ones are good at asking big questions. How good, though, are we adults at answering such inquiries as …. How big is Earth? … How old is our planet? … When did people first appear? Educator David J. Smith, whose fascinating books include the acclaimed If the World Were a Village (2011, rev. ed.), has again demonstrated how to help children grapple with the immensity of our world. As he writes in the prologue to If … A Mind-Bending New Way of Looking at Big Ideas and Numbers, Smith proposes to scale down or to “shrink … huge events, spaces and times to something we can understand.”
He begins with the galaxy: “If the Milky Way galaxy were shrunk to the size of a dinner plate … our whole Solar System–the Sun and the planets–would be far smaller than this speck of dust (an arrow points to a yellow dot on a white plate) … .” Smith then explains that the Hubble Space Telescope can see about 3,000 galaxies, which would amount to a stack of 3,000 dinner plates about 375 feet tall, or roughly the height of a 38-story building. And that’s not all: the universe might have more than 170 billion galaxies, which, continuing with this dinner-plate analogy, would give us a stack about 4,175,000 miles high, 17 times the distance from Earth to the Moon. Opposite his full-page image of the plate, illustrator Steve Adams shows a boy gazing at a tall stack of dishes that go beyond the Moon.
This deft combination of a precise, simple analogy + a bright full or double-page illustration + relevant fascinating facts will inform and delight many a curious child. Adults should appreciate the logical order of questions, as Smith begins with the most immense phenomena and moves on to more narrow ones. His comparison of planets to various types of balls would be a great, memorable way to get kids to comprehend their relative size. Smith taps the image of a yard to represent the history of Earth, while using an hour to reveal how different forms of life have evolved on Earth. Historic events, inventions, continents, water use, and species of living things are addressed, as well as money, energy, life expectancy, population, and food. With the image of a pile of 100 coins, Smith provides a vivid picture of worldwide income inequality, as the richest 1 percent would have 40 of the coins, while the poorest 50 percent would share just one coin.
Can you imagine how much more our children would know and understand about the world if every classroom implemented Smith’s techniques? In addition to his stellar books, Smith has developed an impressive geography curriculum for grades 5+, called Mapping the World by Heart. A great complement to this or to other social-studies curricula would be the fabulous nonfiction books published by Kids Can, which excel at depicting such issues as water conservation, biodiversity, food security, microlending, citizenship, and global awareness.