Book Review: Gem By Hollie Hobbie

A very small degree of hope is sufficient to cause the birth of love.


As a kid, I was the happy recipient of a bedroom decorated in all things Holly Hobbie. I had the pink and green curtains, the rug and bedding, and I even had one of those rag dolls with the movable eyes, and the clothes that changed from dress to pants.

You could say that between Strawberry Shortcake and Holly Hobbie, I was living the dream, well at least the 5-year-old little girl version. I still have that doll, if the truth be told. So, when I learned that the author and illustrator of the same name had written a new children’s book, I knew I had to take a look at it.

I headed to the bookstore, found a copy and perched myself in the nearest chair for a read-through. The soft, greens of the cover immediately reminded  me of the often underappreciated talent of most illustrators.

However, being a bit of an impatient person, I greedily read the first page, then briskly cruised through the remaining pages, startled by the lack of text. Initially, I’ll be honest and say that I was ready to dismiss the book for having “too many pictures” with as much fervor as my child self would have occasionally dismissed a storybook that had “too few pictures.”

In fact, I’d all but hopped out of the seat to reshelve it, when I was gently reminded of this fact. I needed to look at this book again, and this time by my own daughter was the one doing the reminding.

“Wait mom,” she said, tugging at my hand. “You didn’t even look at the pictures. Won’t you read it to me?”

And, holding up the book for me to see, she pointed to a beautiful illustration that reminded me why I loved the Holly Hobbie character so much as a kid. A bit sheepishly, I realized I’d done myself a disservice by dismissing the book so hastily. With renewed sense of purpose, I opened the book again, this time ready to explore. The images in the book, though they didn’t resemble any of my favorite childhood Holly Hobbie characters, were similar in that they served as a perfect, calming contrast to the chaos of modern life.

The artist has a style that makes her perfect-for-kids artwork stand out, but not in that garish hyper-commercialized “Bratz”dolls way. It’s subtle. Her illustrations are soothing, simple images that any child can gaze at with the hope of falling headlong into a nice session of daydreaming, and likewise, reading the story of “Gem” by Holly Hobbie (The author’s given name is Denise Holly Ulinskas, and after she married, her last name became Hobbie, hence the author shares the name of one of her book characters.) feels much like a daydream.

With the warm weight of my daughter leaning in on my lap, I read, aloud, first page of the story. It begins with a the letter from “Gran” to her granddaughter (allegorically named) “Hope” describing the “longest, fiercest winter I remember.” Gran goes on to describe a ferocious winter that “just wouldn’t quit” and in order to get through it, she recalls the day that Hope had found a little “gem” in the garden.
The gem in question is not of the jewelry variety, well, unless you think of toads as a particularly valuable treasure. So, in order for Gran to have something to look forward to during that brutal winter, she imagines the backstory of how Gem arrived at her garden, and in the following pages the reader is treated to beautifully illustrated series of toad adventures, mishaps, near-misses and life lessons.

As my daughter and I perused the pages, I found myself warming to the book and to the toad, and my cynical adult demeanor melting away in the warmth of those spring-infused images. In fact, when I came across Hobbie’s depiction of Gem as a brand new parent to a rambunctious horde of toadie offspring, I giggled out loud. I wonder why it never occurred to me that toads, too, might be overwhelmed at the prospect of… reproductive abundance?

Hobbie’s deft storytelling ability allows her to lend humor, mirth, fear, love, depression and, yes, hope into the tale of a little toad. With such a beautiful tale to guide us,  we find that we too can make it through the worst, most somber winters, or personal obstacles, provided we keep focused not on the dark of the smothering cold, but rather that things always change for the better, that sometimes life gives us the simple joy of unexpected miracle…even if the miracle in question turns out to be a slimy, green toad.

In her return letter to Gran, Hope, still young in her experience of loss and sadness, replies with a thank you, her plans for the future and says, “Probably everything is amazing the more you learn about it….Thank you again for the book, which I know will keep me warm on cold, wintry days–like it did you.”

My sentiments exactly. If you’re child (or you, perhaps) is in need of a magically illustrated storybook a copy of “Gem” by Holly Hobbie is a great place to begin.