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Leo: A Ghost Story

leoThis book is one of my favorites of the year, and I would imagine it’s one that the Caldecott committee will discuss at length. (It has also recently been named a NYT Best Illustrated book.) Mac Barnett’s excellent storytelling, combined with Christian Robinson’s illustrations, make this a true picture book. Robinson’s childlike illustrations (a mix of acrylic paint and paper collage) may look effortless and simple, but a close look reveals the details and intentionality in each spread. Take, for instance, Leo the invisible ghost. Robinson makes sure readers see him by outlining him in blue while keeping most of his figure transparent. Leo’s soft blue outline contrasts with the sharper angles of most of the humans he encounters, except of course, for Jane (who is shaped very much like Leo, if more solid).

One particular Caldecott criterion in identifying a “distinguished American picture book” stands out when looking at Leo: “Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures.” Barnett’s straightforward text leaves so much room for the illustrations to tell the story. The color palette lends a vintage feel that fits a ghost story and establishes a more subdued tone. And right from the beginning, the illustrations fill in the gaps: on the first page we read that Leo is invisible, but on the next, readers can see him — although some kindergarteners will tell you that they see him on the first page, too.

The book’s design enhances and furthers the story. A partially visible Leo next to the door on the title page is completed at the end of the book on the page opposite the copyright information (on the title page he is walking through a wall; opposite the copyright information, he walks through it to the other side). Robinson utilizes spot illustrations as well as single- and double-page spreads to great effect; the double-page spread where Leo leaves his home to roam is especially effective. The long road’s perspective leading away from the house epitomizes Leo’s loneliness and indicates a potentially long journey. The text placement, different on every page, takes illustrations and word flow into account, drawing readers’ eyes so that they take in the story in its entirety. And for picture book (and knights of the Round Table) enthusiasts, Leo’s coat of arms hidden underneath the book jacket is pure gold.

Barnett and Robinson’s collaboration is one of the most unusual and charming books I’ve come across this year. And while child appeal may not explicitly be part of the Caldecott criteria, the fact that this book is a fast favorite for so many young people certainly adds to its merit.




  1. I’m a big fan of this one too! I especially appreciate how Jane’s sidewalk drawings (visible when she first meets Leo and on the endpapers) unify the theme and allow for readers to see characters through Jane’s perspective. I also notice how the angled lines in the bustling cityscape evoke stress Leo feels while roaming, whereas the horizontal and vertical lines create calmness in residential settings that are more familiar to him. Every brushstroke is purposeful, as Robinson’s seemingly simple facial expressions carry substantial emotion and character. That wide-awake smile is one for the ages! 🙂

  2. Allison Barney says:

    Well said, Elisa! The sidewalk drawing are one of my favorite parts, too. And I love what you said about the cityscape! Every time I read this one I notice something else that’s brilliant.

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    As i said in my review (so forgive me for double-dipping), I am bothered by two things in this book. First, it spends a lot of time on a prefatory setup (Leo in his house) before beginning the story proper. (And why, once he gets to the city, does Leo feel nostalgia for it when we had been given to understand he’d not been there before?) Second, the treatment of Leo’s ghostitude is inconsistent–sometimes he’s solid (as when he wears a bedsheet), sometimes he’s not (as when the cop walks through him). If you want to chalk that up to ghosts being madcap paradoxes of the space-time continuum that’s on you.

    I guess I have a third thing. The spread where Leo is bringing the family tea makes him visible on the left-hand page and invisible on the right, where the tea tray is meant to be hovering but looks to me like it’s been placed on a shelf. That spread always stops me, but it could be my own faulty depth-perception at work.

  4. To the above commenter, I think that’s how ghosts work, traditionally. They are invisible and incorporeal but can move objects. They can walk through walls and pass through people, but lift a candelabra or slam a door or move a rocking chair, etc. That’s the whole idea of the sheet ghost: the sheet has a shape but if you lift it there’s nothing there. In fact, I think one of this book’s strengths is the way Christian Robinson’s illustrations teach us these ghost rules while simultaneously telling the story. As for the city, I think the implication is that Leo has been there before, before he died…*cue dramatic music*

    LEO is a big favorite at story time! Certainly one of the year’s best books.

  5. Roger, I never noticed the “shelf” thing before, but looking at that spread again, I get what you mean. I suppose this doesn’t bother me, though, since the picture on the left informs us about what’s going on – and in some ways, the tray hovering parallel to the floor contrasts with the slanted picture frame and emphasizes that the tray is hovering. Pondering Leo’s pre-ghost life (familiarity with the city, etc.) is what I think makes the book extra intriguing. I think Lisa explained well the ghosty rules that allow readers to suspend belief. I counted 7 spreads before Leo roams, and then 3 roaming spreads before he meets Jane. The rest of the book takes up 11 spreads. This seems more unique than off-balance to me, but I’d be interested to compare/contrast with other books and try to make more sense of that structure.

  6. Joanne Rubenstein says:

    I’ve read Leo to 31 classes, K-6, and it was enjoyed by all. One kindergarten class laughed hysterically about the thief stealing silverware. They couldn’t imagine why anyone would want silverware. A commentary on our more casual lifestyles!
    I think the the setup was necessary to understand the nature of ghosts. He could go through the wall, he was not seen by most, only special people (like you) can see him. The police officer had to walk through him to set up the thief walking through him.
    The story was very carefully told so that the children understood that Jane thought he was imaginary, and that he was conscious of that and felt guilty about it. I agree that the page when he is so happy that he can’t sleep is so wonderful.
    When I read it, we examined the (first) endpaper. One child noticed that there is a picture of Leo. Was it a chalk drawing of him or was it him hovering there?

  7. The book picture was very plain not the best storyline or pictures

  8. Big Mama is so angry right now, this boke is #bad

  9. goodly book

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