Little Elliot, Big Family will leave you with that cozy, happy feeling you get when you watch a classic feel-good movie, except this marvelous little book is even better because you can pore over each exquisite scene as long as you’d like. Released just a few months ago in 2015, Little Elliot, Big Family combines calm, carefully structured language with gorgeously detailed illustrations to help children explore themes such as isolation, belonging, and the diverse nature of families.
Author and illustrator Mark Curato introduces us to Elliot, a stuffed elephant, and his friend Mouse. When Mouse leaves for a family reunion, which consists of “15 brothers, 19 sisters, 25 aunts, 27 uncles, and 147 cousins” (3), Elliot spends the day alone. He encounters a multitude of diverse, cheerful families, and becomes increasingly lonely. Utilizing words sparingly and carefully, Curato quietly guides the reader through the story, creating a sense of distance from the world as Elliot walks through the bustling city. The gorgeous illustrations further this feeling of isolation, portraying Elliot as a tiny figure in cold, vast landscapes. The reader feels like an outsider looking into Elliot’s mind, just as Elliot feels like an outsider looking into a world that he is not really a part of.
Eventually, Elliot decides to see a movie at the theater, but the film, which depicts a happy family of elephants, only increases his sadness and loneliness. However, while walking home in the bitter snow, Elliot encounters a surprise that helps him find everything he has been longing for.
Here, the illustrations become cheerful and vibrant, full of lively activity, warm colors, and glowing lights. The cold grays and blues of the earlier images evolve into soft browns, greens, and reds, and Curato portrays light so masterfully you can almost feel its warmth, creating a sense of coziness and belonging that both children and adults will find uplifting.
As if this beautifully portrayed journey from isolation to belonging was not enough, the book carries its message even further. By depicting a diverse array of families, Curato not only suggests that a loving family can ease the pain of isolation, but also that this family does not have to take any particular form. Curato includes illustrations of families of multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds, and all are portrayed as equally happy and loving, creating an overwhelmingly positive view of diverse families.
Furthermore, by placing Elliot in a nontraditional family context, Curato extends the message that a family does not have to be traditional or even biological, as long as its members love and accept one another.
Ultimately, this book explores complex, sensitive issues such as isolation, acceptance, and the diverse nature of families in a way that is accessible to children. The carefully crafted language interacts beautifully with the rich, intricately detailed illustrations, creating powerful emotions that range from intense loneliness to joyful belonging. Children who feel isolated from the world, children who feel as though they do not have a family, and even children who are members of nontraditional families will find strength in this comforting story. It is easy to lose yourself in the lush illustrations and quiet language, with each rereading revealing subtle details that were missed before. Elliot’s journey to discover the meaning and value of family is one worth taking.
Bonus: If this review did not convince you to read this book, perhaps this heartwarming book trailer will!