Title: Grandpa Green
Author: Lane Smith
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Grade Level: K-3
Extension Objectives: Students will learn basic plant parts while developing an understanding of how illustrators can use their artistic license to tell their story through pictures.
How the story grows
Grandpa Green has garnered accolades for its illustrations, earning a Caldecott Honor, recognition as one of the New York Times 10 Best Illustrated Books of 2011, and was recently chosen as a Red Clover nominee in Vermont. The minimalist narrative is told by a child who shares milestones of his grandfather’s life, as the grandfather begins to forget them. The writing offers a simple timeline while the illustrations add depth and a sense of fantasy through topiary renditions of his life’s experiences including cultural icons such as the Eiffel Tower. The illustrations, depicting topiary, bring the story to life. For example, the text offers the line “...but he went to a world war instead” while the illustrations capture the nature of war through abstract yet unmistakable topiary images of cannon fire, bombers, and paratroopers. A tree is cleverly converted into a cannon complete with a wispy dandelion as the fuse and orange leaves and flowers representing the fire spitting out of the cannon.
Readers will delight in the way that Smith uses texture and line to represent both real objects and abstract ideas. Every botanical shade of green imaginable is presented through mixed media and techniques such as pen and ink, sponge stamping, and water color. The story itself will be appreciated by an older audience, but all ages will enjoy identifying symbols of Grandpa’s life and popular culture.
The biological backstory
Topiary is an art form that consists of pruning plants into abstract or representative shapes such as obelisks or chickens. Created by the Romans, topiary gardens have historically been a sign of wealth. While the range of possible shapes that can be formed is limited only by patience, skill, and imagination, the number of plants that can be shaped is quite small. Plants that do well as topiary, such as boxwood, privet, and holly are able to withstand heavy pruning and typically have the dense foliage required for shaping.
From the biological perspective, what we like about this book is that it explores the relationship between gardening and art. While many gardens embody artistic elements such as color and composition, in this story, the plants are transformed into representational art such as characters from The Wizard of Oz or a wedding cake. Topiary has the capacity to delight because the transformation of the plant is so unexpected such as a bush shaped into a dragon which is both surprising and intriguing.
Our next column will feature Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey, (Penguin, 2011, ISBN: 9780140501698). Sal, the little girl, goes out to pick blueberries with her mother at the same time little bear is out picking berries with his mother. Both little ones have trouble resisting the delicious fresh berries as they stumble upon each other.