Written and Illustrated by Lane Smith
Roaring Brook Press, 2011
Awards: Caldecott Honor
He was born a really long time ago, before computers or cell phones or television.
Plot in a Nutshell: A boy wanders through his great-grandfather’s topiary garden
The boy walks through a garden and shares what he knows about the history of his great-grandfather, all of which is reflected in the garden’s topiaries. He grew up on a farm. When he got chicken pox, he stayed home from school and read books. He wanted to study horticulture, but he had to go to war. He met and married a girl and they had a wonderful life together. They had children and grandchildren and our narrator, their great-grandchild. The boy points out that his great-grandfather forgets little things occasionally. But the garden keeps track of all the important things for him.
Author/illustrator Lane Smith has written some of my favorite laugh-out-loud picture books so I was unprepared for the warmth and emotion of this wonderful book. As the narrator walks through the garden, unfolding his great-grandfather’s life, he picks up items along the way and puts them into his wagon. The imagery throughout the book is just beautiful and filled with symbolism that will likely sail right over your little ones’ heads. But I can see this being a fantastic book to share with kids whose families are dealing with Alzheimer’s, as it is such an emotional reminder of how the experiences of a person’s life become part of the legacy they leave to their children and grandchildren.
Mr. Smith uses mixed media for the artwork, including brush and ink for the characters and watercolor, oil and digital paint for the gorgeous garden foliage. The two styles combine to make the illustrations almost mesmerizing in their cleverness and beauty. When the narrator talks about his great-grandfather having chicken pox, for example, the topiary bush is covered with small red berries. It merits repeat readings to notice every detail of the artwork and the full four page fold-out image of the whole garden at the end brings it all together. The final image, at the end of the book, shows the young narrator working on his first topiary, which is a depiction of his great-grandfather. The symbolism here, that this much loved man is a part of the ‘garden’ of this boy’s life, made me instantly teary. This one is absolutely lovely.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that the things we create help document who we are and who we’ve been.