Quentin Blake's illustrtaion of Roald Dahl's BFG. The BFG is sitting on a rock and holding Sophie up in his hand.

Go deeper: Size and scale in children's books

From miniature people, to towering giants, playing with size and scale add a fun dimension to children’s books!

Have you ever wondered why humans are the size they are? Why aren’t you as small as a mouse or as gigantic as a whale? And what would happen if you changed shape, shrinking to a tiny speck, or shooting up to become a giant?

The scale of people has been a source of fascination for storytellers since the very first children’s tales were shared, and the first books written for them. From stories about tiny Tom Thumb and other ‘thumblings’, originally told centuries ago, to the more recent adventures of Roald Dahl’s dream-weaving Big Friendly Giant, these stories burst with magic and wonder, invite readers to re-evaluate the real world and its inhabitants – and usually make us laugh (or shudder) along the way.

The BFG by Roald Dahl: Quentin Blake's sketches and original artwork

The BFG is depicted sittin of a rock wearing green trousers, brown shoes, a white top with an open brown waistcoat over it. He holds Sophie in one hand and his dream trumpet in the other. His bag is next to the rock.

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Usage terms © Quentin Blake 1982. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by© Quentin Blake 1982.

Small books for small humans

In 1740, publisher Thomas Boreman helped spark a revolution in children’s book publishing when he released a tiny book, just 6.5cm high, jokingly called The Gigantick History of the Two Famous Giants, and Other Curiosities in Guildhall, London. Before then, children tended to read the same stories as adults, or if they had their own, then they were religious or educational. With his Gigantick History – the first in what became a series of entertaining guidebooks to London landmarks – Boreman decided books for young readers should look and feel different to adult books and set out to make enchanting objects small enough to fit in the palm of a child’s hand. Nobody knows Boreman's exact reasons, perhaps he felt that small hands should hold small books. 

Curiosities in the Tower of London

A small book being held in a persons hands. The book is open. The left hand page shows a black and white illustration of the the White tower, Tower of London. The right hand page is the title page for volume 1 of 'Curiosities in the Tower of London'

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Other tiny books from history suggest that children may instinctively scale down the adult world – and that this may be a natural part of children’s play. For example, the very first work that author Charlotte Brontë created was a miniature book containing a short story written for her baby sister Anne. Written and stitched together when Charlotte was just 12 years old, it was one of a series of tiny handmade books made by the Brontë children. The later books were made for and about their toy soldiers. The siblings’ little volumes contained stories, illustrations, maps, advertisements and articles – mimicking the material produced by grown-up publishers. Charlotte was just a child herself when she produced this beautiful work and therefore obviously not driven by commercial ideas of what might sell as those early publishers may have been.

Earliest known writings of Charlotte Brontë

Open book image. The left hand page contains handwriting only. The right hand page also contains two images. The top one shows a blue sailing boat at sea. The lower one show a figure in red standing before a tree.

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Perhaps Boreman and his contemporaries were tapping into this existing culture. Whatever the motivation, their tiny books really took off. Within decades publishers had become even more creative, releasing whole series contained in little dollhouse-style bookshelves, crossing the boundary between books and toys.

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Queen Mary's Dolls' House

A curator wearing white gloves leans into the Library of Queen Mary's Dolls House. The curator is taking a book off the shelves from the back wall of the room.

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Usage terms Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019 www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/queen-marys-dolls-house Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

In that first volume, Boreman set out his belief that children’s minds need to be ‘amused’ by books in order to give their full attention during ‘the infant age’. His own visual joke – calling such a tiny book gigantic – made his young readers laugh even before the first page. And so he helped establish a tone for so many of the human scale-themed books that followed: whether it's Mr Small of the popular Mr Men series eating a ridiculous lunch of half a pea, one crumb and a drop of lemonade, or Alice almost drowning in a sea of her own tears in Wonderland, silliness concerning size abounds in children’s literature.

'Alice's Adventures Under Ground', the original manuscript version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

folio: 10r. The handwritten text wraps around an illustration of Alice floating on her back in water. She has one hand raised above the water as if she has only just fallen.

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The challenge of scale

Quite how to depict such exceptional body sizes has proved an enduring challenge for illustrators. In Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book (1744), a tiny book containing the earliest surviving collection of English nursery rhymes, one of the illustrations depicts a snail that’s larger than the head of the lady nearby. In the volume of Boreman’s Gigantick History about the zoo at the Tower of London, the porcupine is comically bigger than the ferocious lion. Absurd, unrealistic scale within the illustrations of these early children’s books seems to be one more aspect designed to amuse.

Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book

Page 26. The rhyme is called 'Snail, snail.'. The illusration shows a female figure in a full length dress and apron standing raising a fist to a snail which is depicted beside her. The rhyme reads: 'Snail, snail, come out of your hole, or else I'll beat you, as black as a coal.'

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Curiosities in the Tower of London

A small book being held in a pair of hands. The book is open. The right hand page depicts a very large porcupine inside a cage.

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Others want the scale just right. On one draft sketch for Julia Donaldson’s The Smartest Giant in Town (2002), Axel Scheffler writes a note to his publisher: ‘Giant a little too small’. What’s the problem, you might think, looking at the sketch, the giant’s still bigger than all the houses? But Scheffler is thinking about his readers and how he must help them believe in the world of his book, and it’s internal logic.

The Smartest Giant in Town by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler: original artworks with notes

Black and white illustration. A giraffe wearing a scarf along the full length of its neck, is standing in front of a line of houses. An average height couple walk towards him. A pig carrying a sack walks by on his hind legs. A cyclist comes towards the pig. The Giant, nearly as tall as the giraffe, and taller than the houses, is walking out of the town.

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Usage terms Artworks for The Smartest Giant in Town © 2002 Axel Scheffler. Story text by Julia Donaldson. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

Many illustrators solve the problem of scale by having their characters appear next to everyday small objects to highlight their size. Diana Stanley’s front cover for The Borrowers Afloat (1959) shows Mary Norton’s little characters using a teapot as a boat, each figure no bigger than one of the yellow flowers they drift past. In another sketch, she shows the Borrowers in the hands of the Big People, and elsewhere they are scaling a lamp as if it were a mountain.

The Borrowers series: sketches, notes and drawings by Diana Stanley

Coloured sketch for the front cover of 'The Borrowers Afloat'. The borrowers are in an old fashioned kettle which is floating on water.

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In Mr Small (1972) Roger Hargreaves really emphasises his hero’s littleness by having him alongside a tiny object – whether it’s a pin, worm or matchstick – in almost every single drawing. Mr Tickle (1971) was the first book in the Mr Men series, inspired by Roger’s young son Adam asking him what a tickle looked like. Mr Small was the twelfth book, and the first to focus on a character’s size. This little character seems to have spurred Hargreaves on to push the boundaries of his, by then, well-established series. Within the tale, Mr Small is unable to succeed at any job because of his size (working at a sweet shop he falls in all the lolly jars, at the match factory he gets trapped in all the boxes). Eventually he is advised to meet a children’s author who could make a story of his life. Mr Small thinks nobody will enjoy it but the author reassures him saying, ‘Yes they will. They’ll like it very much!’ And here Hargreaves seems to jump out of the little book to address the reader directly: ‘And you did. Didn’t you?’

If you grow up are you a grown up?

Somehow, children’s books have always seemed exactly the right place to discuss questions of size, and whether how big you are matters. In Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, the manuscript that formed the basis for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Lewis Carroll uses the edges of his pages creatively to help represent Alice’s wildly varying sizes after the potions she sips make her stretch and shrink. In one drawing she’s squashed within the frame of a page, almost like a baby in the womb, in another her head scrapes the top. Physically altered she wonders whether she is still fundamentally the same person: ‘If I’m not the same, who in the world am I?’

'Alice's Adventures Under Ground', the original manuscript version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Folio: 20 recto. An illustration of Alice. She is in a fetal position, and squashed into the frame of the page. This makes it look as if she has grown far too large to fit onto the page.

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Children are always growing and changing, bulging out of their school shoes before term has finished, chalking up their heights on the kitchen wall until one day they tower over the person who gave them life. This may explain why big and small characters, and the phenomenon of physical growth, are such familiar motifs in children’s writing. Perhaps part of Alice’s eternal appeal is that it perfectly captures this change into one surreal episode. The tale poses unanswered questions about being a grown up: is it just a matter of actually, well, growing up? At one point, Alice, like Mr Small, contemplates being the subject of a book:

'There ought to be a book written about me... And when I grow up I’ll write one – but I’m grown up now,' said she in a sorrowful tone, 'at least there’s no room to grow up any more here....Shall I never get any older than I am now?'

Overcoming monsters

Another great children’s author who plays with the theme of size is Roald Dahl – he himself was a towering 6’6’! His protagonists may not be actual thumblings but they are dwarfed and belittled by monsters, from the ‘gigantic holy terror’ Miss Trunchbull in Matilda (1988), to the child-eating giants in The BFG (1982). Dahl was bullied at school and he writes knowingly about being made to feel small and insignificant by controlling adults and cruel older children. Crucially though, he imbues his child heroes with the skills to overcome these huge tyrants.

Matilda by Roald Dahl: Quentin Blake's sketches and original artwork

Black and white sketch. Using only one hand Trunchball, who is standing, is lifting a small child off the ground, she is holding the child at her shoulder height.

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Usage terms © Quentin Blake 1982. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by© Quentin Blake 1982.

The BFG by Roald Dahl: pages from the Ideas Book and manuscript drafts

A page from the draft of The BFG. Handwritten by Roald Dahl in English on yellow paper.

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Usage terms © The Roald Dahl Story Company Limited, image courtesy of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
Held by© The Roald Dahl Story Company Limited

Like Tom Thumb before them, Dahl’s child heroes demonstrate that physical size doesn’t always equate with power. Sophie in The BFG, ‘a little orphan of no real importance in the world’, ultimately saves all of the earth’s children. In Matilda we’re told, ‘Being very small and very young, the only power Matilda had over anyone in her family was brain-power’. Indeed, it’s her amazing mind which leads her to overcome Miss Trunchbull.

Matilda by Roald Dahl: manuscript and typescript drafts

Typescript draft of Matilda by Roald Dahl. Dahl made many crossings out, corrections and notes on the the page by hand.

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Usage terms © The Roald Dahl Story Company Limited, image courtesy of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
Held by© The Roald Dahl Story Company Limited

In fact, what exemplifies Dahl's tiny heroes is not principally the size of their bodies but the size of their brain, their courage or their imagination. And, at the heart of Matilda, Dahl seems to share a rallying cry to children about the power of literature. Read everything you can, he seems to say – from the tiny books of the past to the latest releases on the shelves – because the more you read, the more you know and the more you know, the mightier you are. From little acorns mighty oaks grow.

 

Banner image © Quentin Blake 1982. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

  • Imogen Carter
  • Imogen Carter writes about children's picture books for the Observer where she is the assistant editor on the New Review. She has also written for other publications including the Telegraph, the New Statesman and Family Traveller, and worked for some of the UK's leading cultural organisations such as the BBC, the British Council and Manchester International Festival. She has a Masters in Arts Criticism and Management from City University.

  • consultant: M O Grenby
  • M O Grenby is Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies in the School of English at Newcastle University. He works on 18th-century literature and culture, and in particular on the early history of children’s books. His published works include The Anti-Jacobin Novel, The Edinburgh Critical Guide to Children’s Literature and The Child Reader 1700–1840, and he co-edited Popular Children’s Literature in Britain, Children’s Literature Studies: A Research Handbook and The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.