review of picture book Willow

I love picture books that are affirming and life-loving, encouraging creativity and self-expression. Willow offers all that and more.


by Denise Brennan-Nelson and Rosemarie Brennan, illustrated by Cyd Moore

Sleeping Bear Press (May 2008)

ISBN-10: 1585363421, ISBN-13: 978-1585363421

Reading level: Ages 4-8

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Even on the sunniest days, Miss Hawthorn’s art room was cold and dark.
Everything was in its place.
There wasn’t a single broken crayon in the bunch.
The students sat in their rows, silent and still, like eggs in a carton.
Except for Willow.

All the students painted trees with straight brown trunks and round green tops.
Everyone except Willow.
“Whoever heard of a pink tree?” Miss Hawthorn asked with a frown.
“That’s what I saw when I closed my eyes,” said Willow.

Willow by Denise Brennan-Nelson and Rosemary Brennan, illustrated by Cyd Moore, p. 1, 4.

Creativity, the ability to express yourself, and being yourself even when others disapprove are so important. They can help bring real happiness and peacefulness. Picture book Willow encourages all those things in an uplifting story.

Willow loves creating art. She’s a free spirit who follows her heart when she paints, creating pink trees and blue apples. She does this even in her art class at school, where her teacher, Miss Hawthorn, is an unhappy, stifling woman who tries to make all the children conform and paint only what she thinks things look like–imitating life, not encouraging real creativity or expression. The class is subdued and obedient, all except Willow. Miss Hawthorn dislikes Willow because of this, and because Willow shows her an art book with art that is creative and different.

One day, Willow gives Miss Hawthorn a gift–the art book. Over the holidays, Miss Hawthorn reads the book, and when the class comes back, they find their classroom and Miss Hawthorn changed–from a tight, cold classroom into a lush, creative, mind-opening classroom where artistic expression is encouraged.

Authors’ Brennan-Nelson and Brennan’s story is uplifting and encouraging. I love how creative Willow is, and how she never lets herself get daunted or suppressed by Miss Hawthorn and the rest of the class, but continues being creative. She is a strong character who subtly reminds readers to be themselves. The book encourages creativity and unique expression, and to be yourself. The book has a hopeful feeling to it–suggesting that even tightly controlled, unhappy people can learn to free themselves up and be more creative and expressive, and that people can blossom and grow and create change, even under sometimes oppressive environments.

Miss Hawthorn seems a little over the top–she mutters “horrid little girl” after Willow–but this exaggeration makes her a great antagonist. Because Miss Hawthorn is so oppressive and creates such an unhelpful environment, and because Willow’s classmates tease her for her creative expressions, it makes the reader root all the more for Willow to stay herself and to succeed. When Willow does succeed and Miss Hawthorn is transformed, it brings a wash of good feeling.

I really like that the grumpy, controlling, flattening teacher is softened by Willow’s gift, and learns and changes. I wasn’t sure that i believed such a deep transformation could happen from one simple gift of an art book–but i loved the idea. The story is touching and heartwarming.

Brennan-Nelson uses language beautifully, using strong analogies to show us so much more–“Even on the sunniest days, Miss Hawthorn’s art room was cold and dark…The students sat in their rows, silent and still, like eggs in a carton.” Brennan-Nelson also uses evocative description to flesh out characters, such as Miss Hawthorn’s moods being as dark as her clothes, and her finger long and bony, while Willow has rosy cheeks and daydreams.

Willow shows the transformative power of kindness and gifts from the heart. It reminds us that suppressing ourselves can make us unhappy, while allowing ourselves some freedom and creativity can allow us to flourish. And it encourages creativity. This would be a fantastic gift for anyone who struggles to be themselves, or for anyone wanting to be creative.

Moore’s watercolor illustrations are free, expressive, colorful, and beautiful. Moore uses vibrant colors, which makes the illustrations feel like they’re pulsing with energy and life. Body language is expressive; you know at a glance what the characters are feeling. The illustrations feel freely drawn, with different perspectives, varying sizes, and a gentle wildness about them keeping reader attention. Moore’s illustrations remind me a little of Babette Cole’s; both have that free feeling in their work.

Moore shows characters and their attitudes well, with Miss Hawthorn in dark, body-covering dresses, her hair tightly pinned back, harsh lipstick on her lips, and a scowl on her face, while Willow has bright, playful clothing, wild hair, and a smile on her face. Miss Hawthorn’s transformation is dramatic, with her hair let down and beads ad feathers braided into it, earrings, no harsh lipstick, and bright, hippy-ish clothes. Moore picks up the feeling of Brennan-Nelson’s text perfectly, and greatly adds to the story.

Moore’s free-flowing illustrations and vibrant colors encourage creativity and self expression, as does the story.

Willow is an uplifting and encouraging book with important, subtle messages. Highly recommended.

Willow was nominated for the Cybils awards.

Also, check out for all sorts of neat things related to Willow–free printables to color in; art projects; a Willow screensaver; activity guide; and much more.

Want more books?

Go to Encouraging Creativity: Thinking Outside the Box to find another great picture book.

Or, go to the Picture Book reviews main menu to see all the categories of books.

About Cheryl Rainfield

I write the books I needed and couldn't find as a teen. I write teen fiction--paranormal fantasy and gritty realistic fiction. I'm the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, 2010) #1 ALA QuickPicks, and Governor General Literary Award Finalist, HUNTED (WestSide Books, Oct 2011), STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), The Last Dragon (HIP Books, Sept 2009), and Walking Both Sides (HIP Books, 2011). I also enjoy drawing, surfing the web, connecting with people I like, doing crafts, and being with my dog.
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2 Responses to review of picture book Willow

  1. Amanda says:

    I love this book! One of my favorites of 2008 by far!

  2. Cheryl says:

    I love this book, too, Amanda. It was your review of it that first got me interested in it.

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