cover image The Big Mamma

The Big Mamma

Mordicai Gerstein. Farrar Straus Giroux, $16 (40pp) ISBN 978-0-374-38431-9

Nature and civilization collide in this thought-provoking picture book based on the story of a boy discovered living alone in the mountain forests of southern France in 1800. Hunters are first to see the boy scampering in the woods, where he had survived on plants and berries and the icy mountain-stream water. Captured, the boy is later brought to Paris's Institute for Deaf-Mutes, where experts test and examine him, and finally determine that he is ""hopeless."" Happily, one doctor thinks otherwise and welcomes the boy into his home, teaching him skills and caring for him. ""He will never learn to speak,"" the doctor eventually realizes. ""He was alone in the silent woods too long. But he has learned to have feelings, and they can be hurt."" Gerstein's (The Story of May) detailed and informative text clearly reflects a wealth of research; he is simultaneously publishing a novel, Victor, on the same subject (reviewed below). The smoothly paced writing sustains a mysterious and sometimes melancholy tone, in keeping with its subject matter. In loose-lined panel illustrations, Gerstein conveys an arc of emotions. He depicts the unrestrained joy of the boy cavorting nude in his natural surroundings, while scenes of capture are suitably darkened. Ultimately, the boy's home life in Paris appears warm and bright. Young readers will be fascinated, perhaps even spurred to further investigate the facts behind the story. Ages 5-up. (Sept.)