Review: The Big Dreams of Small Creatures

The Big Dreams of Small Creatures

by Gail Lerner

Nancy Paulsen Books (imprint of Penguin Random House), 2022

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Heidi Rabinowitz

This fantastical story, told from multiple viewpoints, offers a vision of hope for human/insect communication. Eden (a biracial interfaith girl), August (a white, presumably Christian boy), a paper wasp queen, and an ant named Atom all contribute their perspectives as the story unfolds. August seeks to destroy insect life after his big moment in the school play is ruined by a cockroach inside his costume. Meanwhile, Eden, a budding entomologist, discovers that she can communicate with paper wasps via radical empathy and a kazoo. With opposing purposes, both children head for the Institute for Lower Learning, "Where Humans and Insects Intersect." August wants to find the deadly insecticide invented by the Institute's founder before he saw the light, and Eden wants to help insects educate humans about the importance of working together for the health of the planet. These quests become dangerous, exciting adventures in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory atmosphere of the Institute. Ultimately, August sees the bravery of the tiny creatures, his heart (in Grinch-like fashion) expands, and all ends happily as the Institute's mission is reinvigorated and Eden and Atom become the new co-directors.

A few small quibbles: the transition from the realism of the first few chapters to the pure fantasy of the rest of the book is slightly jarring, and the whirlwind tour of the Institute's many customized insect spaces can be hard to follow. However, the concept of communicating with insects through empathy (combined with sound, vibration, Morse code, and semaphore) is intriguing, and the action is non-stop. The important message of the importance of pollinators is conveyed with a light touch. Young readers are likely to enjoy the ride very much.

Eden's mother is white and Jewish and her father is Black and Christian. Her identity is laid out on page 17, where we learn about the ways that the family thinks about Eden, and about her own comfort being "mixed." There are a few other mentions of her identity, as with a meditation on the danger of living while Black (starting on page 85) and a fairly long discussion (starting on page 145) comparing the celebrations of "humble little Hanukkah" and "big, showy Christmas." Eden displays an admirable commitment to tikkun olam (healing the world) but her Judaism is not a significant factor within the story. That said, it's a pleasure to welcome this charming biracial Jewish character to the pantheon of children's literature. 

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Reviewer Heidi Rabinowitz is one of the co-admins of The Sydney Taylor Shmooze, along with Susan Kusel and Chava Pinchuck. She hosts The Book of Life Podcast: A Show About Jewish Kidlit (Mostly) at Heidi is Past President of the Association of Jewish Libraries, and Library Director at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida.