You’ll be amazed! To find out, have a look at Steve Jenkins’ extraordinary new book . . .

Just a Second: A Different Way to Look at Time 

2011. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Genre: Nonfiction picture book

Ages: All ages

Trait Connections: Ideas, organization, voice, conventions & presentation


In this fascinating collection of facts and unusual details, author and illustrator Steve Jenkins explores the concept of time, and encourages us to think about it both factually and philosophically. Every informational tidbit he discloses captures our attention. We learn that within a second the midge (a kind of gnat) can beat its wings 1,000 times–that’s twenty times faster than a hummingbird. A very fast human can spring 39 feet–fast enough to outpace the black mamba, which slithers a mere 24 feet, but slow in comparison to the cheetah, which covers 100 feet per second. The book isn’t all about speed, though. In fact, it covers a wide range of topics, from clams to space ships, mouse populations to earthquakes. It isn’t just foused on seconds, either. We also learn a number of things that happen within a minute, hour, day, or week. In one minute, for example, a skydiver in free fall plunges about two miles. In an hour a baby blue whale feeding on its mother’s rich milk can gain nearly 10 pounds.  And within a week, a giant pumpkin can gain 150 pounds. These and dozens of other alluring facts will spark students’ curiosity and challenge their thinking. But the point of the book isn’t just to dazzle us with individual details. It’s also to point out just how fragile life is–how very quickly some things happen, and how impressively long others take. Each day, 50 new species are identified, while another 150 (many unheard of) go extinct. By the end of the book, you’ll find yourself thinking of all the things that have occurred just while you were reading–and your head will spin. By the way, we take seconds, minutes, and hours for granted, but someone had to come up with these concepts. Thank the Babylonians–and Egyptians for that. The book is visually delightful, filled with the beautiful and strikingly detailed paper collage imagery for which Jenkins is famous. Considering that the text is fairly minimal, it contains a startling amount of information–plenty to keep curious readers of all ages turning pages. It’s also a book to which many readers will wish to return multiple times; it’s simply impossible to take it all in with one reading. The information on life spans is particularly intriguing. Do you know what animal species holds the record for the longest life–and just what that record might be? If you guessed it’s the giant tortoise at just over 150 years . . . sorry. Wrong. You’ll have to read the book to find out the real answer, but here’s a hint: This fellow is just a youngster when the tortoise hits 150.

In the Classroom

1.  Begin by giving students an appreciation of just how long a second or a minute really is. See if they can tell without looking at a clock. Then make a short list of things they think might happen in one second–or one minute. You might prompt them with questions like these: How many times can you blink in a second? Clap your hands? How many times does your heart beat in one minute? How far can you run in a second? (If you’re outside, give it a try.)

2. Before you read the introduction, you might also have students guess how many seconds the average person lives. Then share the introduction–which gives us the answer: 2 1/2 billion.

3. Use a document camera in sharing this book–and a pointer so you can focus on specific images and facts as you go along. While you don’t want to make students guess about every fact, you may want to include a few guesses here and there to make the reading more interactive: e.g., Who can travel farther in one second, a peregrine falcon or a sailfish? Which is slower, a sloth or a tortoise?

4. After you have shared a few pages, talk about how the book is organized. Notice that Jenkins gives us the history of concepts like the second or minute–then shares numerous examples of things that could happen within each span of time. The time interval–minute, second, hour–becomes the connecting idea that holds all the examples together.

5. Also talk about the quality of the author’s details. Obviously, he had thousands of facts from which to choose. But he could not include everything in his book. How do you suppose he decided which facts to include? Do your students think his choices were good ones? Have each student write down two or three facts they will recall and ask them to think about why. Which details might we remember well enough to share with a friend? Why does some information stick in our minds? Talk about what we learn from Steve Jenkins about choosing factual details for our own informational writing.

6. Surprise is one of an informational writer’s best literary devices. As readers, we like to learn something new. Ask students what information surprised them most in this book.  Have them review any sample of their own writing and identify the information they think is likely to be the most or least surprising. Are they including enough of the unexpected? Too much of what readers have heard before? How do writers come up with surprises–and how can they judge what readers are likely to know already? (Hint: What takes the writer by surprise is likely to surprise many of his or her readers as well. Research is less about recording what everyone knows and more about uncovering what most readers don’t know yet.)

7. Have students do a short “time study” in your school or neighborhood and write about the results. Examples might be what happens every second on the football field, what happens within a minute on a nearby roadway or along a river bank, what happens within a week in a school garden–or inside a student’s writing notebook. Encourage students to use their imaginations to come up with time limits and scenarios that will be interesting to explore. Expect to use firsthand observation for research on this–but don’t rule out the Internet either. Facts on how rapidly grass grows, how fast a thrown football flies, or how much water flows in a local river could add interesting details.

8. This book has several addendums, including a History of the Universe, Earth’s Population: 1750 to 2050, Life Spans, and The History of Time and Time Keeping. Take time to share any or all of them. Each contains interesting data, and each is designed differently. Talk about the layout of these various additions. Does the design make information accessible in each case? Is it easy to understand the writer’s message? What design features give each addendum eye appeal?

9. On the final page, Jenkins includes “A note about the facts and figures in this book.” Read this to older students and ask for their comments. What do we learn about research from this note? Is it always possible to have perfectly precise information? When is it OK for a writer to make a guess, and just how accurate does that guess need to be?

10. Book jackets contain wonderful information that readers often overlook. Share the book summary on the front inside flap and have writers comment on its effectiveness. Does this writing have voice? Would this summary encourage them to read the book? Why or why not? Also share the bio on the inside back flap. Does this piece have voice? What, if anything, do students like about it? Who wrote it? How do we know? Encourage students to write a personal bio to accompany one of their own informational (or other) pieces of writing.

11. Steve Jenkins (as he tells us himself in his bio) is the author of more than 25 books for young people. You may want to list some for your students or make them available in your classroom. Also visit his website:

12. If you like this book, let others know by writing a review and posting it online. You may also want to start a wiki on time observations so that you and your students can add to it throughout the course of the school year. You may be surprised at how many things you discover occurring within seconds or minutes all around you!

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Is gaming entering the classroom? In a word, yes–and in a big way! Stop by later this week to find out how, and get a link to a website you do NOT want to miss.