Junior philosophers, start your engines. Budding biologists, you can also start your engines. And if you’ve ever pondered the question, ‘What came first, the chicken or the egg?’, then you should start your engines as well. This is the book for you.
Before After by French artists Anne-Margot Ramstein and Matthias Arégui is an unusual book. It’s entirely pictorial, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about each double-page spread that represents a ‘before and after’ and in doing so, shows the passage of time.
Some of the illustrations are straightforward and obvious – an acorn grows into an oak tree and a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. Some show changing seasons – a boy ice skating on a frozen lake sits alongside a picture of the same boy roller skating on a path next to the lake in summertime.
However, Before After demands closer attention. As you turn the pages, the relationships between the various objects and the way that the passing of time is illustrated becomes increasingly complex. For example, a sheep in a field is shown on one page, opposite a ball of wool. On the next double page spread, you see hands knitting red wool, opposite a picture of a child playing in the snow, wearing a red wool hat and mittens.
Some of the connections are made over several pages. I particularly like the sequence between squid, a bottle of ink, a pigeon, a quill standing in the bottle of ink, a typewriter, a pigeon in flight and finally an airmail envelope. Although the envelope seems the obvious end to the chain, the next page shows a city skyline with a plane taking off, followed by an illustration of the countryside, where the plane is landing. Could the plane be carrying the letter? Of course, the reader decides.
The importance of seconds, minutes, months and years is shown in different ways. A lizard’s tongue darting out to catch an insect contrasts with sand through an hour glass, a rocking horse and then a rocking chair, a row of new coloured pencils alongside worn and blunted stubs, and a jungle that is cleared for urban development.
Fanciful references such as a pumpkin with a carriage are played against colder, manufactured objects, such as a pile of bricks followed by a wall. Some pairings are fun – a page of rockets followed by fireworks or a sheaf of corn alongside a box of popcorn, while others are a little darker – a family home falling into disrepair and an apple rotting after a caterpillar has chewed through it. But in each, the themes of time, nature and human impact on the earth are exposed.
Before After is recommended for children aged five years and over but I think it’s one of those rare books that truly speaks to people of all ages. Find Before After at all good book shops or online at Fishpond.