Off the Wall

[Many Calling Caldecott posts this season will begin with the Horn Book Magazine review of the featured book, followed by the post's author's critique.]


Off the Wall
by Theodore Taylor III ; illus. by the author
Primary    Roaring Brook    48 pp.       g
10/22     978-1-62672-294-1     $19.99

Part fish-out-of-water story, part ode to street art, this vibrant offering will grab readers’ attention. Narrator Sam is unhappy about a family move that has traded their “fast, busy city life for a small, quiet one far away.” Sam, apparently the only Black child in their new classroom, feels out of place and misses the sights and sounds of the city. Then one day Sam spies a graffitied building and is captivated: “It reminded me of home — loud and energetic.” Taylor’s bold comics-style illustrations provide readers with ample visuals to explore, aligning them with Sam as they take in the graffiti’s images and lettering. Upon returning to see the art, however, Sam is crestfallen to discover it’s been painted over. Happily, an older cousin shares other places where they can see street art: “tags in the alley, stickers on street signs, stencils on the corner, throw-ups on moving vans, murals in parking lots.” They end up at an abandoned factory the town has ­permitted people to paint as they wish, with the eventual goal of transforming it into a community center. Another child invites Sam to join in, her welcome finally making Sam feel at home. Heartfelt back matter reveals the roots of Taylor’s own fascination with street art. MEGAN DOWD LAMBERT

From the November/December 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


I often brainstorm what I’m going to write for pieces like this in my head as I’m on my way to work. After several years making the same commute, my movements have become so routine I could likely do my walk in my sleep. Turn left at the house with the gigantic sunflowers; cross at not the first, but the second Dunkin'. The route has become so ordinary that I hardly notice anything around me. 

That’s changed since reading this larger-than-life picture book by Theodore Taylor III. New (old) details have started to catch my eye now as I walk along. Murals I pass every day are suddenly brighter; spray-painted tags I had previously ignored jump off the sides of buildings as the train speeds by. Street art is everywhere and always has been. Off the Wall showed me what I’d been missing.

The review above captures the story’s plot and tone perfectly. Sam feels like an “alien” in their new town until discovering a bold display of graffiti on the side of a brick building. “It was like a language from another planet that only I could understand.” Sam’s connection with the artwork is profound and relatable. Readers can feel Sam’s joy as they dream that night; their eyes closed, blissfully floating through a night sky decorated with their name in various graffitied forms and colors. Though the original tag Sam finds is painted over, Sam soon discovers a space that welcomes this art form and opens their world up to a community of like-minded artists and friends. 

But the best part of this book isn’t just the story the author tells, but the one he shows readers.

Taylor could teach a master class in color. From the deep purple of Sam’s hair to the bursting shades of gold, green, and blue in each artists’ graffiti — the colors on each page are loud and energetic. When Sam first arrives, they stick out as the only splash of color in a pale and muted classroom. As they start to discover their passion and feel more at home in a new town, the illustrations become even more vibrant. Taylor’s comic-style illustrations have all the rich color and power-packed energy of a longer graphic novel but in just forty-eight pages. Like some of the best picture books, what’s said in the illustrations is as telling as the text itself. 

Though Taylor includes in an author’s note that his intention isn’t to have readers tagging up their city after reading his book, I am confident that it will inspire young artists to hone their skills in new ways.

Hill Saxton

Hill Saxton is a youth services librarian at the Cambridge Public Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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