• Picture Book Snob

This book plants seeds that will blossom and grow

The Balcony by Melissa Castrillón

When I read A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison last year, I was struck by how beautiful the cover was. I looked up the artist who designed it, Melissa Castrillón, and was delighted to discover she also illustrated picture books. The Balcony is the first picture book that Melissa Castrillón wrote as well as illustrated, and it's the first of her books that I purchased. Since it arrived, we now have the rest of the books Melissa created herself (Mighty Min and Can You Keep a Secret?). We also love Nano, an amazing, illustrated fact book about microscience by Jess Wade, which was published last month. I've been meaning to share reviews of all of these stunning publications for ages, so am going to start with The Balcony.

Told exclusively through images, this story is about a little girl whose family moves from a house in the countryside to a city apartment. The girl misses her garden and everything that lives there. We see her tear-stained face looking out the back window of the family car as it drives away, while squirrels and birds mourn her departure.

When unpacking, the girl finds a pot, soil and some seeds. She turns her balcony into a garden and, as it blossoms, it becomes a powerful transformative force that affects the girl and everyone around her. By the end of the story, the girl has found a friend and brought nature to her neighbourhood. The formerly dull and bare district is now an attractive, vibrant place. Previously vacant shops are occupied, and life springs from every balcony, building and street. Birds, insects and squirrels have made it their home, and most importantly, so has the girl.

It's wonderful how The Balcony shows that nature can be found everywhere, even in built-up areas. I love how it celebrates the comfort and energy that can be derived from the outdoors and wild plants and animals. The illustrations in this book, like all of Melissa Castrillón's art, can only be described as stunning. Even the endpapers are fabulous and the cover underneath the dust jacket is exquisite. I love Melissa's striking use of colour, line and pattern, and how intricate her images are. Every page is bursting with life and the splendour of the world around us - something that can easily be taken for granted. Melissa created the images for this book with the same method she uses when making screen prints (read an interview where she describes this in more detail).

There's no text at all, apart from a letter explaining why the family is moving. A few words appear on shopfronts and banners, and to emphasise some of the girl's emotions. The illustrations are so engaging and communicative, they sprout a captivating narrative by themselves. My kids love gazing at the images and speculating about the various characters, and adding more to the story each time they read it.

The Balcony is one of the most beautiful books we own, and would make a gorgeous gift, for adults as well as children. This would work brilliantly in a classroom setting. It's ideal for encouraging children to become interested in gardening, and to create their own visual narratives. This is the first wordless picture book I've reviewed, and only the second one we own (the other is Up and Up by Shirley Hughes).

According to BookTrust.org.uk, wordless picture books: "encourage children to think for themselves and form their own interpretation of what is happening. They’re a great way to expand the imagination and have a lot fun doing it!" I love how children can independently explore books without text and follow what's happening even before they can read. It's also brilliant how each experience of the book can be entirely different and generate new narratives. This spectacular story plants seeds in the minds of readers that will keep on growing.

About the author-illustrator:

Melissa Castrillón is a freelance illustrator currently based in Cambridge, England. She grew up in a small town called Hitchin before moving to Cambridge where she earned a First-Class Honors degree in illustration. In 2014 she earned a master’s degree in children’s book illustration at the Cambridge School of Art. Melissa is the illustrator of If I Had a Little Dream, Yellow Kayak, Dear Little One, Mary Anning's Curiosity, Nano and Animazes. In addition to The Balcony, Melissa is also the author-illustrator of Mighty Min and Can You Keep a Secret?

Look at those endpapers!

If you love Melissa Castrillón's art as much as we do, make sure you check out her fabulous online shop. I got a gorgeous print there recently and some beautiful greeting cards too. The Balcony was published by Simon and Schuster in 2019 and awarded a gold medal by the Society of Illustrators- see this book on the publisher's website

Beneath the dust jacket