Book

Pebbles and The Biggest Number

Author: Joey Benun
Genre: Children 4-8
48 pages

Book Review

January 8, 2024

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9
(9/10)

About Pebbles and The Biggest Number

Pebbles and The Biggest Number is a 2023 children’s book written by Joey Benun, illustrated by Laura Watson, and edited by Brooke Vitale. The What’s the BIGGEST number? Little Pebbles, wings shimmering with wanderlust, grew weary of counting garden flowers. A bigger question buzzed in his mind: “What’s the biggest number of all?” So, with adventurous spirit and fluttering wings, he embarked on a daring quest around the globe, a flutter for Infinity as it were.

From scorching deserts to coral-painted oceans, . , from trembling earth to icy claws of avalanches, and cresting waves . But through it all, Pebbles makes friends as varied as a bird, a water animal or an insect) and learns of numbers vast. Numbers soared higher than the moon, deeper than the ocean’s heart, and Pebbles soldiered on. The author Joey Benun invites the reader to open their wings and join Pebbles’ journey, letting curiosity be a compass, friendship the fuel, and every flutter take them closer to the infinite wonder that awaits.

A factual treasure centred around big numbers

Pebbles and the biggest number is a wonderful children’s book that will excite children and adults alike. Centred around the voyage of a butterfly around the world to find bigger numbers than those to which its neighborhood constrain him, he leaves his home, meeting different creatures that are able to make him discover larger numbers than he had ever heard of. The book is packed with great and interesting facts which means it is one of those that you can just revisit tens of times and still learn from and that you can look at whatever your age. It even has a recap at the end that helps you retain the number information as a concise summary.

The details that conquer the mature reader’s heart

The writing style is very child-friendly as are the illustrations. What a wonderful book and way to get children interested in numbers. The book also often made me smile with some of its analogies or puns like e.g., the idea of driving a crab. I also love the way that the analogies allow children and grown-ups alike to relate new and strange facts to those they might already know a little more about. The attention to details can truly conquer the reader. The authors takes you into the voyage and does not need to tell you how to feel. You just do as a consequence of his content. In addition, the book is edited (beyond having the editor listed on the Amazon sales page, you’d be surprised how many books are not). Another point is that the author provides information for different ways of measuring our perception of the world, e.g., the distance in feet and meters, miles and kilometers, the degrees in fahrenheit and celsius, and so on.

Some questions the book raises but does not answer

Because of the way the book is centred around big numbers, it does not address collaterail questions it raises for each fact it shares, such as:

  • Can a butterfly fly around the world?
  • How do we know these numbers like the number of cups that makes make up the ocean or the weight of the sun?
  • I loved when the author mentions the world’s tallest sandcastle and the number of pounds / kilograms of sand used but it immediately made me wonder how many millions of sand grains the world’s tallest sandcastle used as that had been the pattern of the storytelling.
  • How does the butterfly know what gender the animal is that it speaks to?
  • In fact, how does the butterfly speak all these different animals’ languages?
  • And if humans do not understand the butterfly, how was the butterfly’s story conveyed to a human narrator?

In effect, the book mixes the factual it so well narrates with the fantasy such as a cross-animal talking butterfly makes one wonder where one stops and the other starts, e.g., can a butterfly travels the world in the way it is describes?

Accessibility and inclusion

What makes this book superb is also the reason it is being so harshly assessed. One issue I have with the book is how USA-centric it feels for a topic so international, so borderless. I developed this subject further in the following section because I believe that it needs expanding. An author should always have their audience in mind which, in great part, this author does, but there is a clear self-limitation (concscious or not) that this reader felt coming across references of different locations during the butterfly’s quest.

Other aspects of accessibility and inclusion include the occasional poor color contrast between the writing and the background which will make some (hopefully small) parts of the book a little less easily readable for some. Finally, the book raises a gender and naming question: Why does Pebbles have a name but everyone else is called Ms or Mr [insert the species]? What a lovely immersive voyage it would have been to have a more authentic interlocutor with a name reminiscent of the area of the world that the butterfly visits? I feel there is a missed opportunity there to show that numbers are international. Gender-wise, how does Pebbles know their gender and since the gender has no incidence on the plot, is it necessary?

Around the World but USA examples only

While Pebbles’ quest takes him around the globe, the book only mention the USA. The references to California and USA are relevant, as well as the Empire State building and New-York State (much less so) but also make us realise that the author is from there. In itself, there is nothing wrong about it but where other places are concerned they are not referred to by location name (although the very neutral country-less Antartica continent is briefly mentioned), just by generic descriptions such as, to cite a few:
  • the desert: this was a great opportunity to mention an African country such as Ethiopia which recorded the hottest average temperature on Earth, averaging 33.9 °C (93.0 °F) throughout the year, or Libya which holds the world record for the hottest temperature ever recorded at 57.8 °C (136.0 °F). Instead, it mentions only the Californian record which is the hottest day recorded.
  • the world’s tallest building: this was a chance to hint at The Burj Khalifa skyscraper located in the Asian city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, but the (American) Empire State building is mentioned 2 times)
  • the world’s tallest sandcastle is mentioned but the author fails to attribute such a fit to the European country of Denmark, the record holder at the time of publishing.

All these undermine the reach and the weight of a book that is about numbers and therefore concerns all of us in the world. There is of course a strong possibility that the ommissions were politically-related cautions. But it is a great shame that knowledge should be bent for topical reasons. While it is possibly safer, it makes the book feel just a little US-centric.

The limitations in some of the other choices

The first limitation that I noticed was in the choice of flow. Because the book is organised to progress from the lowest big numbers to the highest, it brings in a major question: how did the butterfly know to go to these places in that order?

As the book seek to give more number facts than just one, at times, it introduces a little confusion in the young mind that would have necessitated a clarifying fact. For example, it mentions 24 fish on the same page it also illustrates dolphins without clarifying that dolphins are not fish, a fact that would help the youngster count (it does mention that “dolphins are clever animals” but you would be surprised for how many people that does not mean they are not fish.) especially as it mentions two other facts about them. Another question I wondered about is: since the ants can sense an earthquake, why didn’t the author take advantage of the page about the ants to announce the earthquake?

Another little miss which is purely a personal preference

The illustrations are cute and definitely serve the correct audience. Personally, I prefer slightly more realistic illustrations as they would serve to truly illustrate certain parts. For example, a more realistic drawing of the dog’s fur would have made a butterfly hanging on to a dog’s fur coat more believable. Indeed, the type of dog in that part of the story is typical of that region and is therefore also not a common sight in most parts of the world. So seeing it would have made it feel more real than imagined.

Verdict

With Pebbles and the Biggest Number, Joey Benun makes reality, Maths and Science fun for adults (to read to children as well as themselves) and for children. As such, the book is a must-read that gets an easy 4/5. However, I am still annoyed that it did not make the Fussy Tongue mediatheque (sigh). But when you write a book that speaks of such important and international concepts as numbers, however big or small, accessibility and inclusion are paramount, especially as you bother to take the quest around the world 🙁 Every child wants to fill included and should fill so in the description of the world in numbers. And while the majority of readers will accept the book as it is because it covers most people’s views of the world and gives it meaning or explanation, I want more from an author and a book that should have been in my vault! This also annoys me because it should have been one of those books that get translated in many other languages and remains international as opposed to another way the US teaches the world about themselves. That being said, I will completely recommend this book including the very inspiring bio of the author at its end. Every bit of that book is worth reading but the warnings above are worth keeping in mind.

References and further resources