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Henry & Leo

Those of us who look at lots and lots of new children’s books see a lot of familiar plots and art styles that resemble one classic or another in some way. Whenever I see a book that is fresh and unlike anything I’ve seen before, I celebrate.

That’s all very well, but I need to remember that a child who encounters one of these new-but-familiar books probably has no knowledge of its antecedents. A book that I see as  derivative may be fresh and revelatory to a child.

Henry & LeoHenry & Leo is about a favorite toy lion (Leo) who is real to young Henry. When Leo is dropped during an evening walk in the woods, Henry knows Leo will be scared while trying to find his way home. The adults explain that Leo is not actually real, but a sequence of wordless spreads showing Leo’s quest to find his way home prove them wrong. Shades of The Velveteen Rabbit, right?

Not so fast. Many children believe their favorite toys are real, despite what adults say. One of those children may encounter Henry & Leo before hearing The Velveteen Rabbit. What a wonderful mirror of a book, then: recognition, appreciation, empowerment. When I was on the Caldecott committee, I remember discussing a book that seemed derivative to some, while others thought that its concept would be mind-blowing to children who had never encountered this particular idea before. We had finished discussing Book X (not the actual title, of course) and were talking about another book (I’ll call it Book Y) that had a lot of support. One of the younger members suddenly exclaimed, “Sure, Book Y is good, but it’s not going to change someone’s life the way Book X could!”

Zagarenski’s art is richly colored and dreamlike, whether she’s depicting real or imagined scenes. There’s so much to look at and ponder. One of her recurring motifs is the placement of crowns above the heads of important characters. Again, this device is not uniquely hers. Another of this year’s books shows us that Jean-Michel Basquiat used the same motif in his paintings. On her website, Zagarenski refuses to explain the meaning of her crowns, but this book comes pretty close to solving the mystery. Characters who are real — who have souls — have crowns.

This illustrator has two previous Caldecott Honors (for Red Sings from Treetops and Sleep like a Tiger). While the committee can’t mention this or discuss her previous books, it will still be on their minds. Over the past twelve months, those fifteen people have been receiving packages of books every week, and as they unpack them, you can bet that books by past honorees will automatically go on whatever shelf they’ve designated for books to look at especially carefully. Will they decide they have seen these ideas and motifs before and give this one a pass, or will they recognize that all books are new to some children?


Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Sam Juliano says:

    “Zagarenski refuses to explain the meaning of her crowns, but this book comes pretty close to solving the mystery. Characters who are real — who have souls — have crowns.”

    Gotta love that for sure! It is a gorgeous, ravishing book for sure, all her books are, and based on her two prior Honor medals you can never really count her out. It seems clear enough she has wide appeal with different committees. I know “The Whisper” was being talked about in the Caldecott round-ups last year as well. “Red Sings From Treetops,” her exquisite collaboration with Joyce Sidman is my favorite, but they are all lovely. The committee may well say they have seen these ideas and motifs before and give this particular book a pass, but I’d think it won’t be set aside without some serious scrutiny. I must enjoyed this great capsule appraisal.

  2. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Lolly. And I always love hearing from Sam. For me what brought the book to a screaming halt was the family heartlessly refusing to go find Leo because he’s not real. This is not a comforting bed time book, which is how I’d first thought I’d use it with my own children. This is not a great library read-aloud for our school either – what a terrible message – crush your child’s beliefs and imagination. We are doing all we can to encourage creative and imaginative thinking. This really feels more like a book for adults to love and appreciate. Every year we have a few of those in this list. I do admire Ms. Zagarenski’s work over all. I also loved “Red Sings”. I like art/illustration that draws the children/readers to new challenges in visual perception, appreciation, study of detail, and Ms. Zagarenski’s books certainly do that and more.

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