Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin is a truly unique book. The illustrator, Mary Azarian, apparently used woodcuts to illustrate it. Although I had read Snowflake Bentley to my students previously, I had never realized the illustrations in the book were anything other than standard paintings. Now that I have read about woodcuts and understand that this medium was used to created the illustrations for Snowflake Bentley, I see a great deal more when I examine the book this time around. What I had previously thought to be a stylistic choice on the illustrator’s part, I now realize is the grain of the wood she used adding effect to the illustrations.
What I enjoy about Snowflake Bentley and many other non-fiction picture books is that the story of Willie’s life is told in a narrative form, as a story. Children are able to connect with the material because the information is being presented in a format that draws students into the story being told. These books, in many ways, make history come alive for children of all ages. What I also like about Snowflake Bentley is that expository information is still provided, in the sidebars of a number of different pages. The story of Willie Bentley’s life is told in a narrative format and the facts of his life (his birthdate, where he lived, the experiments he conducted, quotations that he shared, facts about snowflakes themselves, the finances of his work, etc.) are shared in sidebars interspersed throughout the story.
Snowflake Bentley is a 30-page picture book (32 pages if we count the cover and copyright pages) with an interesting layout. The layout completely varies form page to page. Some pages have a two-page spread with an illustration that spans both pages and writing on both pages (usually on top of the illustration, so that the illustration forms a background). Some pages involve an illustration across two pages with a sidebar of expository text and the writing in a white box beneath the illustration. Some pages have an illustration on one page and writing on the other page, usually with a sidebar of expository text next to the writing. The sidebars all have a blue background with snowflakes on the top and bottom. Some pages have an illustration on each page, sometimes with a sidebar of expository text on one page, and both pages with writing superimposed on top of the illustrations. Regardless of the layout of each page, the beauty comes in the variety and unpredictability of each individual page, much like the variety and unpredictability of each individual snowflake.