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Review: Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Grandpa Green
By Lane Smith
Roaring Brook Press
ISBN: 9781596436077
Grades K-4
In Stores

I realized after reading, rereading, and reflecting on Lane Smith’s latest book, Grandpa Green, that I’ve spent more time considering (and, at times, being confounded by) Smith’s last two releases than the last two books from pretty much any author. His last outing, It’s a Book, was a genuinely hilarious crowd-pleaser with a catch – an insult punchline featuring a word (jackass) that led to librarians everywhere getting the vapors and wondering where they could hide the thing (my nearby public library settled on the Teen section).  This much is clear -  Smith ain’t afraid to make bold choices. Grandpa Green is bold, but in a different way – here Smith explores the life of a man in his golden years. While the sentiment involved won’t stir kids’ emotions as it will adults, it is a book that stands out.

How to classify this story? A topiary flashback? A botanical biography? The book begins with a boy walking through a massive garden filled with expertly trimmed greenery. The mood is reflective as the boy narrates:

He was born a really long time ago,

before computers or cell phones or television.

He grew up on a farm with pigs and corn and carrots …

and eggs.

Each line is punctuated by a new topiary creation – rabbit, carrot, rooster. At each stop the boy collects a different gardening item. The story continues through the man’s life – his first crush,  his plans to study horticulture, his military sidetrack – to the current day. The boy brings the forgotten items to his Grandpa Green, who is furiously carving an elephant. Appropriate, as the garden is his way to never forget the past.

The artwork is among the best of the year so far. Fluid characters rendered in ink set against lush green foliage crafted out of watercolor, digital, and oil paint. Smith brings life to Grandpa Green’s art in ways that are at turns slyly humorous, touching, and eerily beautiful. And clever too – repeat readings bring out details that will delight. The images guide the spare text so well that the words seem to almost disappear – not a easy feat. It’s worth noting that Grandpa Green looks completely different from It’s a Book. You’ve gotta love an illustrator who challenges himself to try new things. All around impressive.

In looking for comparable titles, I keep coming back to a film rather than a children’s book. A lot of comparisons can be drawn to Pixar’s Up. Both are essentially about a senior citizen. Both feature a boy protagonist and his connection to the old man. Both subtly touch on themes of mortality.

Although it will resonate more with adults than kids, Grandpa Green should go down as one of the more beautiful and carefully-crafted picture books of 2011. It’s apt that the book trailer ends with the tagline “For grownups to read to those still growing”, because that is exactly the setting needed for this book to reach its full potential.

Review copy from publisher

Watch the Grandpa Green book trailer:

Also reviewed by Book-A-Day Almanac, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Nine Kinds of Pie, Waking Brain Cells.

Calling Caldecott recently discussed the Caldecott potential of Grandpa Green.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. my 6 year old chose this from the school library the morning her grandfather died (she didn’t know yet). This book will sit on our shelves for the ages.

  2. I love this – completely captivating. I’m curious if you’ve shared it with students yet, how they respond to it. I think they’d be fascinated by the illustrations, and interested in the story. But other reviews I’ve read on Goodreads think it’s much more for adults. Just curious how real kids have responded.

    Thanks for a great review!