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A Letter for Leo

letter for leoI have been looking forward to this book since I (and my class of second graders) fell in love with Sergio Ruzzier’s Have You Seen My New Blue Socks? last year.

Let’s take a look at it the way I learned to do on the Caldecott committee. I like to savor a book when I see it for the first time.

Remove the dust jacket: Oh, here’s a little surprise! (And I love surprises!) On the paper cover, we see a little critter/postman delivering mail, with a little blue bird poking its body around the pole of the mailbox. On the inside case cover, the little bird is gone. Oooh. Why? (Tuck that “why?” into my small brain.)

Plain blue end pages, the color of the bird. Nothing will be covered up when the cover is attached by librarians. THANK GOODNESS. They hate that. I don’t really care because I take off the cover at home, but librarians care. Deeply.

Title page: lovely typeface, easy to read, but sophisticated. A circular spot drawing shows a little bird, sad-faced, in a dark place filled with letters and packages. Ohhh. I love that and now must Turn The Page.

First pages: I almost read the summary on the copyright page. I hate when that happens. Would much rather wait and read it at the end. This first spread is so pretty, filled with images of what I imagine the countryside of Tuscany looks like. (Sergio Ruzzier is Italian-born, but American.) The blue mountains match a blue-roofed tower. I like that. (Since I have read his other books, I am always ready for unusual colors in the landscape.)

After this, I turn each page very slowly, taking in the story in pictures. I am trying to see if the story is understandable on its own. It is, though I look forward to what the words will add when I read it a second time.

Here are some details that I notice as I turn the pages: a fox in a tree, reading; a wrapped-up dog bone; animals playing a bowling game; a painting of a mountain whose reflection looks like the back flap of envelope; the critter-postman’s sad face at the end of a day; a tree whose branches look like a beckoning finger; a set of encyclopedias; circular illustrations that seem to change size with Leo’s mood; full-bleed pages and spreads; a bird flying into a mountain; plants in a window looking sad (if that is possible); and a joyful reunion. (So relieved about that reunion!)

Now I flip back and read the summary. Oh, postman Leo is a weasel. I didn’t know what animal he was. No big deal.

Now, let me read the words and pictures together. The text is clear and easy to read. The only hard word is bocce. (I always think Geisel Award when I read books with minimal text. Who knows what they are doing on the Geisel committee right now?) The illustrations clearly extend the text.

Watercolor is a gentle medium for this story of warm friendship. It’s a quiet story, but one that will resonate with children and adults alike. It will also hold up to repeated readings, which is a great thing, because I think this will be read over and over, which I have done now. Leo is such a good guy (er, weasel) that I will love returning to his and Cheep’s story often.

I did eventually read this to my class, which is not the class who was so crazy about Blue Socks last year. This current class oohed and ahhed over each page turn and was very happy with the ending. They loved the occasional blue mountain and pink sky and spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out why Ruzzier chose those particular colors, as well as why he chose circular frames at some points and full-bleed pages at others. I love to pose questions like this to my class because there is no correct answer, but my students like to figure these things out. They flipped back and forth between the two double-page spreads that show first a flock of birds flying north for the summer and then Cheep flying away to join them, leaving Leo behind. There are so many similarities between the two spreads, but the kids really noticed how Ruzzier used color and space to make them, the readers, feel emotions. The more they looked, the more they noticed, which is a great sign for committee discussion.

Ruzzier’s art is recognizable to me, and I am a fan, but for this group his work was brand new. I loved seeing the pictures through their young eyes.

Will the committee have a member who is willing to take the time to point out how special this gem is? I hope so.


Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. The emotional thread of this book. It gets me every time. He pulls it off without being saccharine. There are many good things about this book (which you cover so well), but that pumping heart at its center is the best.

  2. Dean Schneider says:

    I love this book, for all of the reasons Robin so lovingly laid out for us. It should win big awards. (Get that, committee member lurkers????) It’s such a lovely book on all counts. The watercolor art is so warm and pleasing. It’s a fine, fully developed story with a satisfying ending. It has the drama of the turning page: “But what he was hoping for…/ has finally arrived.” It has fun visual and word play, from facial expressions to phrases such as “Cheep is a big little bird now.” And, as Robin said, it’s such an accessible story for young readers and listeners. I hope such a gentle and cozy feeling picture book gets big attention. This is picture book making at its best!

  3. Definitely a huge winner with the kids -my first graders adore it and chose it over five very prominent books two weeks ago when I read it and posed the question. Mr. Ruzzier’s watercolor art is irresistible and his story captivates immediately. Yes I do believe the committee will take a hard look at this one.

  4. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    I am SO glad it works with kids. I think I’ve been seeing it through the lens of a recent empty-nester, and thinking it was more for adult-me (as left-behind Leo) than child readers (as venturing-forth Cheep). I’ve always felt its emotional power but wasn’t sure it would resonate with those venturing-forthers. Love the book; love Robin’s post, too!

  5. Amen to all you say here Martha, and Robin’s post is a brilliant one for sure! 🙂

  6. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Martha’s comment about the empty nest is interesting to me. I wonder how many times our personal lives color our reaction to a book? I just wrote a review for a book that has the main character returning home after a long trip. It looks like he’s home to stay, even though he appears to be an adult. I shuddered. The thought of my grown kids returning home forever (though I love it when they visit) gave me a creepy feeling. (An I love you Forever by Munsch feeling.) When I had my husband read it, he laughed and loved it. He did not over-read it the way I did. It’s just a thought.

    I never thought of this as an Empty Nest book before. I should have, especially when Leo’s life returns to normal routines. Maybe that’s why I love the return-of-Cheep page so much.

  7. I think a large part of the child appeal is the very funny letter on the final page. I’ve read it to groups of children (or at least one group), who laughed and laughed, as did my own daughters. (And as did I.)

  8. Sam Bloom says:

    I’ve been reading this one at bedtime a lot lately with my daughters, and they too LOVE that letter. The other night we each took turns “reading” the letter over and over and over and over. They love it!

    Also, thank you Robin for pointing out the variance between paper cover and inside case cover; we’ve looked at that a lot. My 2-y.o. is fascinated by that difference… puzzled may be a better word. But it has definitely been a hot topic of conversation at our house.

  9. The letter is an eternal joy. It is certainly the children’s literature equivalent to “I Am Groot” from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. I read the book a second time yesterday along with other books that are connected in theme, and the results are the same LEO came out Number 1 again! I have been thinking the last few days that Mr. Ruzzier’s style recalls Leo Politi is a very persuasive way, no surprise at all when you factor in that both have displayed dominant European sensibilities in their work. I have seriously fallen head over heels over this book, and now believe it to be one of the very best picture books of this year, both for wide kid-friendly appeal and aesthetic beauty. When you add everything up Ruzzier is a true original, and I do believe A LETTER FOR LEO is his masterpiece. I am presently preparing my own review, but this one by Robin and the wonderful responses are a godsend. “Cheep” rivals Kelly DiPucchio’s “Ooh la la” as the most adored catch phrase of the year for the kids. 🙂

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