We get about 150 books a day at The Washington Post, so it’s hard for a title to stand out. But last week, a new version of an old classic caught my attention: “Sheep in a Jeep,” written by Nancy Shaw and illustrated by Margot Apple.
At 18 inches by 18 inches, this is, without a doubt, the biggest book of the year.
(Twenty years ago, it was big in my house, too, though we had a much smaller edition. My girls listened to me read “Sheep in a Jeep” approximately 12 million times.)
Nobody at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt could figure out why we’d been sent this giant children’s book, but I wasn’t complaining. Those sheep are always wandering into places they shouldn’t! Shaw and Apple produced a whole series of wooly adventures, including “Sheep Take a Hike,” “Sheep on a Ship,” “Sheep in a Shop” and “Sheep Trick or Treat.”
This errant copy gave me a chance to contact Julia Richardson, the editorial director of HMH’s children’s paperbacks.
“There’s something about seeing the art so large and text big enough for my tired old eyes to read easily that can only be described as fun,” Richardson said in an e-mail. “Maybe seeing anything in a different way can be refreshing, add a little sparkle to something you’re used to seeing the same over and over again.”
Not surprisingly, “Sheep in a Jeep,” originally published in 1986, is one of HMH’s bestselling picture books. The text is simple and funny, and the illustrations are warm and engaging: “Oh dear! The driver sheep forgets to steer!”
Back in the 1990s, you could still buy these big format children’s books in bookstores, “but retail is much changed now,” Richardson notes.
Frankly, as books give way to e-books, and kids everywhere seem hypnotized by their iPads, it’s surprising to see a children’s book that’s so undeniably physical as this giant edition of “Sheep in a Jeep.”
“We publish these books for the institutional market,” Richardson says, “directly to teachers. The books make story time much easier since the illustrations and words are big enough for all the kids to see.”
“Harcourt and Houghton Mifflin both published big books in the ‘90s, though Harcourt more regularly than Houghton. After the merger, which took place in 2008, we decided to bring them back. Our first big books came out in 2010. Now we do two to four books a year.”
This big book format edition sells for $26.99 — cheap considering how much delight it will inspire. After all these years, it’s been fun to have these clumsy sheep around again, but now we’re hoofing this copy over to Stephen Knolls in Kensington, where my elder daughter went to school.