From the Book Shelf, August 2017

Each month I spotlight two books guaranteed to delight readers and provide fun activities to further extend the meaning of each reading experience. With so many wonderful titles available, this is no easy task! I bring a 33-year teaching career, literacy expertise, and a passion for creating joyful readers for every column I write. I certainly hope you enjoy this month’s picks as much as I do.

The Transformative Power of Art in a Community

“You my friends, are all artists. The world is your canvas.”

           ~ Campoy and Howell

Right here in our own backyard, local artists are busily transforming the streets of downtown Winston-Salem into a fun and most inviting space…one mural at a time. Thanks to the creative talents of people like Laura Lashley, The AFAS Group (Arts for Art’s Sake), and many others, former dreary business exteriors along the Arts District (Sixth, N. Trade, and Liberty Streets) now showcase the beauty and diversity of the local community. The vibrant splashes of color and imaginative designs on these giant canvases provide passersby free access to an open-air art gallery, 24/7.

“Color spread through the streets. So did joy!”

~ Rafael López

But, street art is not confined to one-, two-, or three-story high murals. Lining sidewalks and sprinkling parks with trees and shrubbery, skillfully clipped into geometrical and fanciful topiaries, can also delight the senses. Most individuals are familiar with such horticultural marvels as Mickey, Minnie, and their friends throughout Disney theme parks, but there are also amazing topiary gardens to discover across the United States. In fact, whimsical characters and shapes of all kinds may be just around the corner from where you live (psst…check out Reynolda Gardens).

“A town transformed by goodness and beauty…”

           ~ Eric and Terry Fan

Maybe Something Beautiful

This empowering tale by Campoy and Howell is based on the true story of Rafael Lopez, a muralist, who led a community-wide transformation of his once-drab neighborhood in San Diego, California (now called the Urban Art Trail). In this lively narrative, Mira, a young girl who loves to create, uses her passion and imagination to add a splash of color to her gray city, one small piece of art at a time. Mira finds a kindred spirit in a muralist with a “pocket full of paintbrushes” who is passing through town. “Maybe… something beautiful,” he thinks as he looks at a painting Mira tapes to a dreary wall. One by one, neighbors join in the frenzy of writing sidewalk poems and creating murals with Mira and the newcomer. As they fill the streets with laughter, dancing, bold colors and lively shapes, they makeover the neighborhood, one brushstroke at a time. This story is a testament to the power of art and the beautiful things that can happen when a community comes together for a common purpose! Readers will enjoy the back matter that explains the “story behind the story.”

The Night Gardener

Like the aforementioned title, this thought-provoking tale by brothers Eric and Terry Fan is on the 2017 ALA Notable Children’s Books list. The story opens with a double- page monochromatic spread of townspeople, heads hung low, shuffling along the cracked sidewalks, amid rundown homes and unkempt lawns in the town of Grimloch. The heroes of this narrative are an orphan boy, William, and a magical gardener who becomes the catalyst for neighborhood change. Each day, residents wake up to a delightfully different topiary more incredible than the last, and with each new “quiet miracle,” they take time to appreciate the beauty around them. As the story unfolds, the illustrations brighten—reflecting the revitalization that is happening on Grimloch Lane. One evening, amid falling leaves signaling the end of summer, the Night Gardener invites William to help him clip and shape whimsical topiaries…the community-rejuvenation torch is passed. The trees eventually lose their leaves and their fantastical animal shapes, but it is clear that the changes in the lives of those who call Grimloch home will endure forever.

Extension Activities:


The Night Gardener demonstrates the joy that comes from working to beautify the local community through gardening efforts. Research is clear: getting your hands in the dirt is a good thing! There are numerous benefits associated with gardening (e.g., opportunity for exercise, improved health, and social interaction). If there is a garden in your community (flower, fruits and vegetables, herb, shrubs, etc.), ask your parent if you can contribute in some way. If not, get help in creating your own little garden at home—a ground plot, raised bed, planter, or even an empty soup can will work.

Top 5 crops for children:

  1. Sunflower
  2. Lettuce
  3. Radishes
  4. Snow peas
  5. Cherry tomatoes

Mural Painting

The word “mural” originates from the Latin word “murus,” meaning, “wall.” Murals have been around since the beginning of time. From early cave etchings to modern-day street art, people have been sharing their stories, values, and dreams. Just like muralist Rafael Lopez in Maybe Something Beautiful, you can brighten the lives of others by creating a mural to express what matters most to you. If it is not possible to create your mural on a permanent surface, make a temporary mural on a large roll of paper and tape it to a wall. Use paints, markers, crayons, chalk, colored pencils, or even pieces of cut/torn paper to make your masterpiece. You are only limited by your imagination!

Art and Writing

In the opening spreads, the Fan brothers, using a stick, cleverly show William how to draw an owl on the ground in front of the orphanage, foreshadowing the first topiary William and his neighbors will discover the following morning. When interviewed, the Fan brothers stated that they built the story of The Night Gardener around a drawing they did years before (the owl topiary). If you could work with the Night Gardener to create a tree topiary, what would it look like? Would it be an animal, object, person, or something else? Would it be real or imagined? Sketch several possibilities and select your favorite one to create a final product, using any art materials you like (e.g., construction paper for the trunk and branches, and paint for the character). Once you have completed your topiary art, be sure to tell or write a story to accompany your artwork. Share your masterpiece and story with someone.