Sorrow and Joy

In a previous post I shared about books with personal stories that are told in universally appealing ways, and I recently noticed that one of my favorites of recent years also has this quality in spades.

Grandpa Green

Grandpa Green, by Lane Smith, is a visually and emotionally beautiful book – the story of a man’s life told through his garden. While the story is about the life of one man, it’s a life that represents the grandparents of many.

The story is told in first person from the point of view of the Grandpa’s great-grandchild. This allows the text to be simple and straightforward, while the illustrations of the sculpted garden bring history to life. In Linda Ashman’s recent article about Lillian’s Right To Vote, she mentions that the present tense lends a sense of immediacy to a historical tale. In Grandpa Green, I think this is accomplished through the setting. All of the events from the past are recreated and expressed through the grandfather’s garden, in the present.

At the core of the story is another universal theme — the ageing and memory loss of a loved one. Grandpa Green came out in 2011, around the time my own grandmother’s health and memory was in decline. There’s a lot of sorrow in this experience, but this book takes a difficult topic and tells the story in the spirit of joy and acceptance. It creates a comforting atmosphere, and gives the sense that our memories are never lost, but live on through our stories, creations, surroundings, and families.

Grandpa Green_interior

He used to remember everything. 
Now he’s pretty old
and he sometimes forgets things
like his favorite floppy straw hat. 
But the important stuff, 
the garden remembers for him. 


My grandma passed on during the Christmas of 2013, but in her physical absence her presence is still all around – in the smell of frying bacon or fresh cut grass, in my aunt Dianne’s hugs, and my cousin Kelly’s laugh. I have her green and yellow flowered dishes. And my memory of her is also here, in this book.



Arlene Mae Johnson











Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheeler is the author-illustrator of MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS (Penguin), which debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list. She also illustrated Holly Black’s Newbery Honor winning novel DOLL BONES (Simon & Schuster), Pat Zietlow Miller’s picture book WHEREVER YOU GO (Little Brown), Mara Rockliff’s picture book THE GRUDGE KEEPER (Peachtree), and Tricia Springstubb's new middle grade series CODY (Candlewick). Eliza received the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Grand Prize Award for best portfolio at the 2011 SCBWI National Conference. Eliza is a northern Wisconsin native currently living with her husband in Los Angeles, California. See her work at


  1. What a beautiful post, Eliza. I read this book a while ago, but now want to read it again. I love the tree, showing the passage of time in one image. Gorgeous!

  2. I’ve always thought it fascinating that specificity somehow allows MORE of us to connect with a story. Great post, Eliza.

  3. Beautiful post. I, too, will re-read it. Thank you. My mother is just beginning to become more forgetful; this will help.

  4. I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while. I just added it to my library holds!

  5. Thanks for this wonderful post. It is so important to address difficult topics in Picture Books because no one can stop children encountering them in real life, however much you may like to. The challenge for a PB writer is to approach a difficult topic in a gentle and positive way. You have described this challenge really well, and the way Lane Smith achieved this goal, in spades. Thank you!

  6. What a lovely and heartfelt post! Thanks for sharing this.

  7. I haven’t read this one but I will now! Thanks!

  8. This is so serendipitous! When I was writing John Ronald’s Dragon’s, I read Grandpa Green and was inspired by the narrative arc. It gave me the idea to think about telling the story of Tolkien’s life as a kind of universal story. i wanted children to feel that Tolkien could have been their grandfather. I am excited to discover that we love the same books!!!!!!!

    • Wow, Caroline! This is so amazing!!! I’ve been using this book as an inspiration for my work on John Ronald’s Dragons — I think the stars have aligned on this project! It’s so extra cool to learn that our inspirations are overlapping. 🙂

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