$16.99, 32 pages, ages 3-7
A girl catches a toad in her hands, then lets him spring away and be free again, as she realizes there's more joy in letting him go than making him stay.
In this lovely picture book, Toot & Puddle creator Holly Hobbie chronicles the wondrous journey of a toad named Gem to her garden and a touching encounter there between him and her granddaughter Hope.
The journey through spring is told without words and is bookended by two letters: One from Hobbie to Hope, dedicating the book to her and Gem, and the other is a reply from Hope, thanking her grandmother for bringing Gem back to her through pictures.
The story begins in a field of newly sprouted dandelions. Gem is gazing at a butterfly flitting by one of the blossoms and everything seems right in the world. But then, out of nowhere, a car rolls by, spitting gravel from a tire, and Gem tumbles head-over-heels off the lane.
Gem is raddled and dusty, but he's quick to rebound, perhaps aware of all the living he has yet to do.
He hops to a pool of water where a female toad is wading in the shallows. From above on a rock, he serenades her by inflating a sack at his neck and soon the two are encircled by a stream of eggs transforming into tadpoles then little toads.
In the next spread Gem sits alert and still as the little toads pop up down around him. Does he sense danger? Suddenly he's racing out of the marsh, the shadow of a hawk looming over him. Is he luring the predator away? As claws descend, readers wince as if being chased too.
Gem seems to fly as he leaps and just in time, slips into Hobbie's garden -- a place too lush for even a hawk to see into. He's greeted by the smiling faces of pansies as he catches his breath. Then he peers around. A girl in a sunny yellow top sits on a path, sifting through a patch of flowers.
No mind, he seems to say, as if sensing she's no threat -- and he plunks into a bird bath nearby. The water looks cool and must calm his pounding heart, and after a time he climbs out and jumps to the ground to bound away.
But suddenly he's not moving. Something's got him. But where did it come from? Small hands have wrapped around his stomach. They are not sharp like the hawk's talons; they hold him gently like a sling as his legs flop down between fingers.
Now the hands are raising Gem higher than he's ever been. What must he think as the sky comes suddenly toward him? Is he trembling? Does he think he'll be eaten? Suddenly, he's looking into a face that must seem as a big as a moon. A face that shows no teeth -- but is he safe?
Only the girl knows -- or does Gem sense it too? Does he see the wonder in her eyes? Does he know that her smile is kind? He is wrapped so completely in her hands, there is no way for Gem to escape. Only the girl can decide what happens next. Will she keep him or will she set him free?
This is a book to treasure for its simple, quiet message: that even humblest creatures deserve to see how far they can go in life, how much they can do and see.
Hobbie has an amazing ability to make readers feel a part of whatever she paints. Her art wraps itself around them, like an arm around a shoulder, and welcomes them along, as if to say, "Come, look at what I have seen." And every stroke feels as if it was guided by a warm, spring breeze.
Her perspective offers intimacy. She puts readers down in the grass with Gem and nudges them to feel protective of him -- even watchful. Every wide-eyed look from Gem and floppy leap makes hearts skip. Should readers flip ahead in the book, make sure it's safe for him to go on?
In sharing Gem's world, a world that's full of wonder but easily missed (if only because humans rise so high above it and they have to hunker down to really see it), Hobbie makes readers want get down low and go there too.
I wondered as I finished this book, how many little readers will fly out their backdoor after they've read it, go deep into their garden, scrunch down as small as they can and wait for a Gem of their own to hold and set free.