Title: Do not lick this book
Author: Idan Ben-Barak
Illustrator: Julian Frost
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
RRP: $19.99 hbk (AUD)

A first look at this book and one might think it is about food. The endpapers are decorated with what appears to be green homemade spaghetti and the title includes a word associated with the act of eating. This book is not about food at all, but microbes. So small the eye is unable to see them, more than 3 million microbes, give or take a few million, can fit on the dot on the first page of text. Min is a microbe and the main character, and she lives in this book. The reader is invited to take Min on an adventure. First, a circle is on the page which the reader is asked to touch to pick Min up. As the reader’s finger touches various surfaces, their teeth, shirt, and belly button, other microbes join her. Each surface explored by Min has a microscopic photo of the surface, including paper, teeth, fabric, and skin. These double page spread photos bleed to the edge of the page, all encompassing and inclusive of the viewer. The photos are amazing and will intrigue viewers of all ages. On these photos are cartoon like characters of microbes talking to each other in speech bubbles. The pages without photos are illustrated in a naïve art style, static characters against a white background. The contrast between the two illustrative styles is vast, so different in fact they seem to balance the visual narrative very well.

This book is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, offering information through characters that are microbes. The book has many postmodern tendencies. The nontraditional use of plot, characters and setting are obvious from the beginning. Microbes are not your traditional picture book character, nor are the use of these types of photos for images. The reader is positioned in an unusual manner as viewer and participant. The narrator instructs the reader to touch the book and pick Min and the other microbes up, allowing the viewer to be part of the narrative. The factual written text, addressed to the reader, is enriched by the additional text in speech bubbles from the microbes on the photographed pages. This is ingenious, creatively combining verbal and visual texts, fiction and non-fiction.

Metafictional characteristics feature strongly throughout. Firstly, the reader must be involved with the story for meaning to be constructed. How else is Min going to get off the book and on your teeth, shirt and skin, collecting her friends and fellow microbes? Secondly, the book itself is featured in both the visual and verbal texts, referring to itself many times. I love it when picture books are self-referential and Do not lick this book will be added to the growing list of such books.

The last page offers information on what these particular microbes really look like and are called. This would be a wonderful chance to introduce young readers to microscopes, even better if they are able to use one.

This book is certainly one of my favourites for this year. It will suit young readers’ home libraries and is a must for preschool, public and junior school libraries. So much to offer!

 Activity Suggestions

  • Look at various surfaces under a microscope. Have a child bring a different thing from home if they like, or make a class list and find items.
  • Research how a microscope works. Who invented the microscope and what are they used for?
  • Invite a scientist guest speaker to tell the children how and why they use a microscope.
  • Have the children design their own microbe. Make sure they choose the shape, colour, name and where it might be found.
  • In the back of the book are the real names of the four microbes. Using the two longest one-word names, streptococcus and corynebacteria, have the children make as many words from the letters as they can. They can use letters only once in the same word.

Many thanks to Allen & Unwin for sending this book for review.