Quote of the Month

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

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

From One Small Object A Large Idea Grew

Throughout our lives people and their actions influence our mindset and, consequently, our actions.  These people's connections to us may last for decades or less than a day.  They are family members, friends, teachers or mentors or complete strangers.  Most of them we welcome into our world.  When a few leave, we breathe a sigh of relief, but make no mistake, they leave a mark.

For many, our parents or one of our parents offer love and support lasting beyond their lifetimes.  Our memories of their words and deeds guide us when we least expect it or when we need it the most.  Little Libraries, Big Heroes (Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 3, 2019) written by Miranda Paul with illustrations by John Parra is about a special man who took his grief and started a movement which has spread throughout the world.

people have loved stories about heroes.

Mythical heroes, historical heroes, and even . . .

Some heroes are ordinary people, like you and me, who become extraordinary.  Todd (Bol) was one of them.  He struggled with reading in school but his mother, a teacher, was in disagreement with his teachers at school.  She told him he

was gifted.

She believed he would accomplish great things.

After graduating from school, Todd found work and the pleasure that comes with lending a helping hand.  Then his mother died.  He was overcome with a deep sorrow.  He remembered how his mother taught children in the neighborhood to read.  Holding this thought in his mind and heart, Todd got busy.

From pieces of old wood, he constructed a one-room schoolhouse with a door on the front.  Inside this schoolhouse, he placed books.  Anyone could take one for free.  It was not successful at first but one day a rummage sale nearby drew the attention of neighbors.  They loved Todd's little library, taking and giving books.

With the help of his friend, Rick, and members of their families, they built other little libraries, hoping to sell them.  No one came, so Todd and Rick decided to reverse the process.  They took these first thirty-two libraries from one state to another.  This was a success!  Word spread from person to person and place to place.  The little free libraries were featured on radio and television.

Do you know how many libraries were established in the first year?  Four hundred!  People who cared for them were (are) called stewards.  Some of these stewards, in turn, have become heroes.  They rise in the face of natural disasters.  They place Little Free Libraries where there is no access to books due to funding.  Did you know there is a Little Free Library on a hiking trail in Canada?  Wherever people are, Little Free Libraries are placed by heroes, people like you and me.

One of the first things you realize when reading this book researched and written by Miranda Paul is the value of building on someone's belief in you.  We should never dismiss what other people see in us.  This is how an average person makes the biggest impact on the greatest number of individuals.

With each paragraph Miranda Paul shapes and reinforces the idea of all of us having the capacity to achieve our ideas by portraying how Todd Bol persevered with the help of friends and family.  She includes specific examples, highs and lows in the endeavor and small moments of conversation to further engage readers in this marvelous story about this remarkable man.  Here is a passage.

Todd told them about his mom.  People
loved his story.  It reminded them of 
ordinary heroes they knew.

Soon, neighbors who had never met
before were gathered around, chatting like
old friends.  They grabbed books.  They gave
books.  The little library became the center
of their neighborhood. 

On the open and matching dust jacket and book case, first, on the front, readers need to pause and look at all the intricate details, artist, John Parra has included.  It's interesting to think about their significance.  He has featured people of all ages and occupations.  Todd Bol and his friend Rick are a part of the group, enjoying the success of their Little Free Library.

To the left, on the back, the pale blue background continues.  Pink and blue clouds hover over a row of books along the bottom of the page.  A blue bird soars near the top.  This is also where the ISBN has been placed; in the upper right-hand corner.  On the dust jacket many of the items are varnished on both the front and back.

On the opening and closing endpapers, the pale blue background provides a canvas for a row of colored book spines like those seen on the back of the jacket and case.  With a page turn, on the right, is the title text and the original Little Free Library with a blue bird perched on top.  The images throughout the book are either double-page pictures or full-page visuals.  The shift from one to the other is for pacing and effect.

Rendered in acrylic paint on illustration board the images enhance the text beautifully.  They bring in elements important to Todd's life such as actual family photographs and Little Free Library designs.  Careful readers will notice the license plate on Todd's truck as they travel and set Little Free Libraries throughout various states.  By observing the details placed by John Parra readers can speculate where in the world Little Free Libraries are.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations spans two pages.  On the left is Todd standing on the back of his pickup truck.  The truck bed is filled with Little Free Libraries and posts.  On top of one of the libraries is a blue bird.  (Another is flying from the right.) Todd has his right arm lifted in greeting as he faces readers.  Three people, friends and family, are carrying Little Free Libraries from just left of the gutter to almost the right side.  The fourth, a little girl, is standing near a library already on its post as another man shovels dirt.

There is something powerful when we look at the life of another person, someone like you or me, who was able to begin something still flourishing today.  Little Libraries, Big Heroes written by Miranda Paul with illustrations by John Parra is a tribute to a marvelous man but also a promise to all readers.  At the close of the book is an author's note, more about Little Free Libraries, more about the people and events in this book, a short list of resources, and a dedication page with special words in memory of Todd H. Bol.  I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Miranda Paul and John Parra and their other work, please visit their respective websites by following the link attached to their names. Miranda Paul has a blog here.  John Parra has interior images from this book at his website.  Miranda Paul has accounts on Facebook and Twitter.  John Parra has accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.   The cover reveal is here.  The book trailer is premiered at School Library Journal, A Fuse #8 Production by Elizabeth Bird, Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system.

I am honored to have had the opportunity to participate in a question and answer conversation with both Miranda Paul and John Parra.  Their answers will endear you even more to this fabulous title.  You will also by privy to the depth of commitment and work both have done with this book (with all their books).

For Miranda:

In your author’s note, you mention first seeing a Little Free Library in 2011.  Where is that library located?  Did you get the idea to write this book then, or did something else prompt you to tell this man’s story?

The first Little Free Library I saw was somewhere in Wisconsin, though I don’t remember exactly where as we were traveling in another part of the state from where we lived at the time. (I doubt I even had a smartphone yet to snap a quick picture…) I didn’t have the idea to write the book immediately. I simply wanted to find out more about it—and possibly join the movement or figure out how to spread these to places I’d been that could benefit greatly from such an idea. It was about two years later that I ran into one of Todd’s family members, and then Todd himself, quite serendipitously. And by then I already had been collecting research on the organization and decided this would make a great book.

When researching for your nonfiction books like this one, what do you do first?  Do you seek an overview? Do you have a list of questions you want to answer?

I often start simply by reading as much as I can about a subject, and recording interviews if there are experts or witnesses. Often, something I read will lead me to something else, and so on. Once I have a lot of the big idea swirling in my head, that’s when a common thread or a certain angle begins to form, and I do another round of research that’s more targeted toward the specific tack I’m taking or the new questions I have. 

As a side note, I sold Little Libraries, Big Heroes to the publisher way back in 2015. Because the publisher was doing restructuring, and a host of other reasons, the book got delayed—and the LFL organization grew by leaps and bounds during those years. Therefore, I had to re-research and update some numbers at least twice—I think there were only about 30,000 LFLs when I first wrote it. And I made some changes to the text when the brilliant editor Lynne Polvino stepped in and helped me reshape it. Of course, when Todd passed away rather suddenly last fall, we added the memoriam which appears at the end of the book as well.

How did you choose what specifics to include to signify Todd as an ordinary, often struggling in school, child?  I am referring to this paragraph.

In school, he didn’t feel heroic.  Even though his mother had been a teacher who loved books, reading was difficult for him.  He was often scolded for asking too many questions, and was told that he wasn’t a good student.

One of my children took much longer to learn to read than the other, and he’s a question-asker. He’s on the spectrum, and generally thinks differently than many of his peers. In that and other ways, I made a connection to Todd’s story that I could appreciate in an intimate way. A personal way into a subject is important whenever I am working on a book, no matter if it’s about science or nature or a person’s life. In talking to Todd and Rick, and other Stewards, I was continuously struck by how humble they were and how they viewed themselves as ordinary. The impact of some of these libraries, and the program in general, is quite far-reaching—yet if you passed some of these individuals on the street, you might not even look twice. In a world where there’s plenty of bad news, it’s an encouraging feeling to know we’re walking among ordinary heroes pretty much everyday, everywhere.

You follow this paragraph with something his mother said to him in second grade which he carried in his heart always.  What words would you offer to young readers to carry in their hearts?

I want children to know, “This book is for you.” No matter how old or young you are, where you live, or what your skills may be, you have something to offer the world. You may feel that it’s something small, almost nothing at all, and that’s ok, because a lot of little drops make an ocean. A hero is not a one-size-fits-all term. Your story matters. Don’t be afraid to share your story, and enjoy listening to others’ stories.

For John:

After reading Miranda’s manuscript, what did you do first in your artistic process?  Did you start sketching out pictures her words presented in your mind? Did you do research on Todd Bol first?  (I know readers are curious about your process before completing the paintings in acrylic on illustration board.)

For Little Libraries, Big Heroes, like many of my other picture books based on biographies, the first official step is the research. In this case I reached out to Todd Bol, founder of Free Little Libraries, to see if he was willing to speak to me and provide possible reference material that I could use for creating the work. Todd was extremely helpful and wonderful in this regard. I think my first phone call with him went so well that we spoke well over an hour. He talked of his childhood, focus, motivation, and how his whole adventure in Little Free Libraries started. We stayed in touch throughout the project. I also researched online and obtained reference material for additional info and inspiration. The follow up steps was to sketch all the characters. Todd of course is there, as are many other real people mentioned in the book. Soon settings and backgrounds were established and a few Easter eggs thrown in for good measure. All sketches are usually scanned so I can manipulate composition and size. Once the drawings were approved by the publisher the final process was to paint. I still work mostly traditionally using acrylic on board.

In several of your books, including this one, you employ a technique in framing your images which adds a texture to them.  How do you do this? Why do you do this?

The texture is greatly inspired from my love of American Folk Art and Mexican Ex-Voto / Retablo style paintings. Many people think I paint on wood because of the scratched textured background in my work but I am actually using illustration board. There is a process where I add three to four different background layers of various colored acrylic paints, after which is sandpapered into to give it that worn and old fashion look. This provides my foundation. Once complete, I transfer the sketch to the board through masking out shapes and painting various elements. As characters and scenes take shape, the final steps are to add details and shading. The completed image with its worn look, gives the viewer the idea that the paintings are old, yet familiar, as if you could have found them in your grandmother’s attic.

I noticed there are pictures on the wall of Todd’s home as a little boy.  Are those replicas of actual photographs you discovered in your research?

Yes, they are based on actual photos Todd emailed me showing his family and childhood including his mom. I like that the art personalizes the book and connects it back to him as well as some of the other contributors and Stewarts in the Little Free Libraries organization. One of my favorite spreads in the book shows the first appearance of Todd standing in front of some kitschy and fun wallpaper that is actually based on wallpaper from his home growing up.

A blue bird, or perhaps a swallow, is seen in many of the illustrations in this book (and in your other books).  What is the significance of including this bird in your artwork?

I enjoy using birds, insects, animals, and nature in general throughout my books. As a child I loved the outdoors as well as going to the Natural History Museum and seeing the dioramas teeming with life. I sort of think that my painting are like those dioramas with life going on all around us even if we are not always aware it’s there. Birds especially have a special meaning of freedom with their flight. In a metaphorical way they can also represent a person’s idea(s), that is received or being sent.

Be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other titles selected this week by participants in the 2019 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


  1. What a wonderful review, Margie. You've included so many good parts, about the book & in the interview. I am waiting to read this book coming from the library. There are many Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood and nearly everywhere I go in Denver. What a gift Todd Bol has given us. Thanks!

  2. Thank you, Linda. When I read this book I was grateful to be given the opportunity to have these Q & A conversations with both Miranda and John. And I love their answers. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I do. Now I have to get a LFL on my street.