How to Really Tell Time

Steve Jenkins

By PAMELA PAUL, November 23, 2011

Impatient children have been known to wonder: “What’s the difference between ‘in a moment’ and ‘in a little while’?”


A Different Way to Look at Time.

Written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins.

40 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

In his artfully designed book “Just a Second,” Steve Jenkins, an accomplished author and illustrator of science books for children, may not answer this exact question. But with great precision, he does offer young readers – both patient and dawdling – a useful perspective on the passage of time.

Jenkins isn’t here to lecture but to enlighten. With a dazzling array of science and nature facts on the order of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, he succeeds in teaching children about time even as he’s bound to pique their interest in a wide variety of behaviors, animal (in one second, a bumblebee beats its wings 200 times), human (in one second, four babies are born and two people die) and mechanical (in one second, “the Apollo 10 spacecraft traveled almost seven miles during re-entry – the fastest humans have traveled in a man-made vehicle”). Really.

Grown-ups will be equally stupefied by events that occur within the space of one minute: Around the globe, 59,000 barrels of oil are used, nearly 15,000 of them here in the United States. The skydiver in free fall drops a distance of two miles. And a horned lizard can devour 45 ants, one at a time. This makes for a jumble of factoids, but the material is organized and arranged with care by Jenkins, whose meticulous cut-paper collage illustrations are detailed and yet unfussy.

The book then goes on to describe actions accomplished in one day, one week, one month and one year. And it ends with a bang of “Very Quick” (“A puff adder can strike and return to a coiled position in less than one-half of a second”) and “Very Long” (“Counting one number every second, it would take more than 31,000 years to count to one trillion” – a neat, if frightening, way to think about government debt).

A strong ecological undercurrent runs through the book, which includes a graphic illustration of population growth and notes that in one year, global warming causes the sea level to rise about one-eighth of an inch. It also offers a timeline on the history of time.

Will children need to read and reread this volume before they even begin to grasp the numbers and concepts within? Absolutely. But they will want to do so, and their parents will not mind.