Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Creature Comforts

Each evening of the week it's the same.  After play, treats, more play, more treats, and trips outside she makes her way to the quilt-covered couch.  Pillows are stacked on the back and sides giving her a somewhat elevated status behind me as I work, using the coffee table as a desk.  The sounds of her soft breathing as she sleeps surround me like a comfortable, cozy blanket.

The solace found in this dog's presence transcends any other experience.  Animals take their ability to live in the moment, using their senses and give humans unexpected but welcome peace.  It's a gift we rarely deserve but strive to repay.  A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E. B. White (Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt And Company, October 24, 2017) written by Barbara Herkert with illustrations by Lauren Castillo is indeed a story of a beloved author's life but it's also a reflection on the influence of animals in that life and in his work.

When young Elwyn White
lay sick in bed,
a bold house mouse
befriended him.

As you might suspect Elwyn had to keep this friend a guarded secret from his mother but the imaginary adventures and visits to the barn they shared were memorable.  With this companion the boy inhaled all the sights, sounds and smells found in the hay-filled haven.  Eventually Elwyn had to go to kindergarten.  He dreaded it with every fiber of his being.

Fears of one thing after another plagued him.  He could hardly wait to get home discarding everything school related as he headed to the barn.  As he got older at the close of the day (or when an opportunity presented itself) he would write about those sights, sounds and smells found in the outside world in his journal.  Writing felt as right as rain to Elwyn.

He continued to write, for a newspaper, when he attended college, and became editor-in-chief.  One night on the way home from work another mouse visited Elwyn in a dream.  He became the main character for a series of stories told to relatives at celebratory gatherings.  After college, writing gave him another job and writing lead him to his wife.  Yearning for life away from New York City, Elwyn, his wife and their three children settled on a farm in Maine along the coast.

It was here the mouse from his dream became a book.  It was here the tale of a pig and a spider, still read today with great affection, was penned.  It was here animals again were integral to the world of E. B. White.  Our lives are far richer for the boy who became a man finding comfort in creatures.

Eloquent language written by Barbara Heckert with wonderfully expressive verbs and adjectives implores readers to explore the world along with E. B. White.  She recreates scenarios allowing us to view them as this author did.  We become connected to those things which gave this man his inspiration.  Here is a portion of one of my favorite passages.

In the refuge of the stable,
Elwyn's senses sharpened
to the ripe scent of manure,
the creak of harness leather,
the perfect shape of eggs, . . .

There is not a single image in this title, beginning with the opened dust jacket, I would not be honored to hang on a wall in my home.  Luminosity exudes warmth from each illustration.  We literally become a part of the world inhabited by E. B. White.  When you look at the scene of the barn extending to the left, on the back, with the horse stalls and three horses, you feel the same calm felt by this boy.

On the book case covered in a textured, glowing golden yellow we see E. B. White seated on a stool just left of the center.  He is holding his mouse companion.  The mouse is looking at him but Elwyn is looking at a spider web masterfully stretched in the upper right hand corner with a spider dangling down.  Perhaps she has something to tell Elwyn.  These two visuals are embossed in barn red like the varnished letters of the title on the jacket.

A bright spring green covers the opening and closing endpapers.  On the title page and dedication page we are privy to small pictures of the boy in the company of animals.  Rendered in

brown ink, Adobe Photoshop, watercolor, and foam print texture

by Lauren Castillo, the illustrations vary in size from two pages, to a single page, to loose circular pictures on a single page or a group of smaller images on a single page.  These groupings indicate the passage of time and heighten the pacing, as do the different size pictures.  Lauren invites readers to pause prior to each page turn to enjoy all the elements of each image.  They reflect the boy and then the man and the time period in which he lived.

One of my many favorite pictures, actually two, is on a single page.  Elwyn, in the first, is seated on steps with his open journal, writing.  Next to him, looking in earnest, is his mouse.  In the second Elwyn is in the barn sitting and writing again in his journal.  A basket of eggs is next to him on the hay.  A mother duck and two of her chicks are moving toward him.

As soon as you look at this book, A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E. B. White written by Barbara Herkert with illustrations by Lauren Castillo, and then hold it in your hands, it's as if the wonder inside begins to seep out and envelope you.  Readers will come to know E. B. White in a singular way, as facts of his life are deftly woven into the narrative and artwork.  I highly recommend this title for your classroom, school library and personal bookshelves.  Be sure to read the Author's Note at the close of the book followed by a bibliography.

To discover more about author Barbara Herkert and author-artist Lauren Castillo and their other work please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Lauren Castillo maintains an Instagram account which contains process artwork for this and other titles.  At the publisher's website you can view interior images.  Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher, hosted the cover reveal on his site, Watch. Connect. Read.  I know you will enjoy his conversation with author Barbara Herkert.

UPDATE:  Author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson features Lauren Castillo, her art and process for this title on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, November 26, 2017.

Please take a few moments to visit Kid Lit Frenzy to see the other titles selected this week by those participating in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


  1. Your post makes me antsy to get my hands on this book!

    1. I hope you can get a copy soon, Annette. It's a wonderful tribute to an amazing man.

  2. Barbara Herkert is coming to the bookstore in November for this book. I can't wait.