12 minute read

Holly Keller (1942-)


Author/illustrator Holly Keller is noted for her penchant for creating animal protagonists, which she draws in a minimalist, flat, cartoon style. While her picture books are entertaining to read, they also have a message, dealing with issues ranging from adoption to fitting in, from sibling relationships to saying farewell to a beloved pet. Keller's endearing characters, many of whom appear in several volumes, include Geraldine, a plucky piglet who is featured in Geraldine's Blanket, Geraldine's Big Snow, Geraldine's Baby Brother, Geraldine First, and Merry Christmas, Geraldine. Horace, another beloved character and a personal favorite of Keller's, is a whimsical young leopard adopted into a family of tigers whose adventures play out in Horace, as well as in Brave Horace and That's Mine, Horace. A rambunctious possum named Henry is featured in Too Big, Henry's Fourth of July, and Henry's Happy Birthday. Other popular and award-winning picture-book titles from Keller include Ten Sleepy Sheep, Goodbye, Max, The Best Present, and What a Hat! She has also expanded her writing repertoire to include several chapter books featuring a young girl named Angela, who stars in I Am Angela and Angela's Top-Secret Computer Club.

Keller was born in 1942, in New York City, and was a fan of reading from an early age. Drawing also quickly became an early form of self-entertainment; one of Keller's early projects was copying all the bird illustrations from a book by noted American naturalist illustrator John James Audubon. A school project, translating Little Red Riding Hood into Latin and illustrating it, also served as a sort of preview of things to come for Keller, however, when she attended Sarah Lawrence College, she ultimately traded the study of art for a degree in history. At Columbia University, she continued her history studies by earning a master's degree, even though she retained her love of drawing and painting. Married in 1963, Keller soon became the mother of two children and found herself living in rural Connecticut.

When the time became available, Keller began taking classes in printmaking, and her instructor encouraged her to consider trying her hand at children's book illustration. After taking a course in illustration at the Parsons School of Design, she put together a portfolio of her works and submitted it to an editor at Greenwillow Press in 1981. Given an assignment to turn one set of drawings into a story within a week, Keller sat down and wrote her first picture book, Cromwell's Glasses, the tale of a young rabbit's anxiety at receiving his first pair of spectacles. Carolyn Noah, reviewing Keller's debut for the School Library Journal, noted that "this brief tale thoughtfully treats the difficulties that glasses present to a young child," and concluded that the book would make "a serviceable addition to storytime collections." Already in place with this first book was Keller's characteristic cartoon-style black ink drawings filled in with watercolor, as well as her positive treatment of a difficult childhood issue.

The follow-up to Cromwell's Glasses, Ten Sleepy Sheep features a little boy who cannot fall asleep; when he tries counting sheep things get worse because the animals throw a giant party in his room. A critic for Kirkus Reviews called the book "neatly done" and "lightly whimsical," while Margery Fisher, writing in Growing Point, dubbed it an "elegantly produced picture-book." Ten Sleepy Sheep was voted a Library of Congress Children's Book of the Year and firmly established Keller in her new career as a picture-book author and illustrator.

Keller's picture books have continued to win kudos from readers and critics alike. Too Big introduces Henry, a possum who encounters new-brother problems when baby Jake comes home from the hospital. Each time he tries to join in with Jake's activities—from sucking on a bottle to putting on a diaper—Henry is met by the statement, "You're too big." Finally Henry begins to realize that he is too big for babyish things, and a new bike christens his role as official older brother in a book that is "both touching and funny," according to Sarah Wintle in the Times Literary Supplement.

In Henry's Fourth of July the possum has a great time at a Fourth of July picnic, running a sack race and watching the fireworks. Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper called the book a "happy introduction" for young readers to the national holiday. Henry reappears in Henry's Happy Birthday, this time fearing that his fifth birthday is going to be a disaster, especially when his mother insists he wear a shirt and tie to his own party. After munching on cake and receiving a present he has been hoping for, Henry decides the party wasn't so bad after all. Elizabeth S. Watson noted in Horn Book that Henry's Happy Birthday is an "appealing and refreshingly honest approach to the traditional birthday party story."

Keller introduces readers to a likeable young piglet named Geraldine in Geraldine's Blanket. Reaching a more mature age, like Henry, Geraldine takes some convincing but finally realizes that her security blanket needs to be reworked into a more socially acceptable product: like new dresses for her dolls. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called Geraldine "a piglet with aplomb," and praised Keller's "deft, spare, pink-and-gold cartoon" illustrations. In Booklist Cooper described Geraldine's Blanket as a "novel look at a familiar problem, and one that may provide a solution for some families."Geraldine's Big Snow finds the piglet bursting with anticipation while awaiting for the first snow of the season. "Geraldine may be a pig," commented Janet Hickman in a review of the book for Language Arts, "but her experience with waiting out a weather forecast will be familiar to young children wherever snow falls." Writing in School Library Journal, Trev Jones dubbed Geraldine's Big Snow "fresh, appealing, and perfectly delightful."

Geraldine finds herself with a new baby brother named Willie in tow in Geraldine's Baby Brother, which like Keller's Too Big, explores sibling rivalry. Harriett Fargnoli observed in School Library Journal that the "expressive pig's appeal remains timeless," while a Kirkus reviewer noted that the "whimsical line drawings add to the overall charm" of Keller's "wise, funny, accepting little book."

Willie also makes an appearance in Geraldine First, doing his best to live up to his responsibility as an annoying little brother by mimicking everything Geraldine says and does. School Library Journal contributor Virginia Opocensky commented that Keller successfully captures a familiar sibling problem with "understated humor and a satisfying denouement," and also noted that the author's "marvelously minimalist pen-and-watercolor drawings [extend] the story beyond the words." An overlarge Christmas tree picked by Geraldine is the focus of Merry Christmas, Geraldine, a book that prompted Booklist reviewer Carolyn Phelan to dub Keller's illustrations "beguiling" and declare that "fans of the series will enjoy watching this assertive heroine plow through every obstacle."

Her own experience meeting a child troubled by the knowledge that she was adopted inspired Keller to create her popular and award-winning picture book Horace. A spotted leopard-cub adoptee, Horace feels out of place with his new family—striped tigers all—especially when all his striped cousins arrive at Horace's first birthday party. "I think Horace and Geraldine's Blanket are my two favorites," Keller once explained to Something about the Author of her books. "I like Geraldine because she's really me, and Horace because it's a gentle and nice story, one of the better ones I've done." Cooper agreed in her Booklist review, writing that while adopted children can identify with Keller's "gentle story," Horace also has appeal for children "who simply feel like the odd one out." Anna Biagioni Hart, writing in School Library Journal, called "Keller's use of appealing animal characters in a fictional tale . . . a welcome approach" to the difficult issue of adoption.

Horace returns in Brave Horace, in which he comes unglued in anticipation of going to his friend's monster-movie party, and That's Mine, Horace, in which he lays claim to a toy truck he "found" on the playground and sticks to his story that it now belongs to him even after his good friend Walter claims to have lost just such a toy. "This sensitive and entertaining picture book is just right for young children," noted Phelan in her Booklist review of Brave Horace, while School Library Journal contributor Jody McCoy called the book a "boon for timid youngsters." Noting that "Keller raises ethical issues that will be easily grasped by young readers," a Horn Book contributor praised That's Mine, Horace as a picture book containing a "perfectly paced, dramatic story with appealing illustrations and a satisfying resolution."

In addition to her books featuring Henry, Horace, and the irrepressible Geraldine, Keller has earned high marks for her many standalone picture books. Her Goodbye, Max is the story of the death of a pet; The Best Present presents a tale of a hospitalized grandmother; The New Boy focuses on what it is like to feel un-welcomed by students at a new school; Grandfather's Dream is a Vietnamese tale about a grandfather's wisdom; and What a Hat! illustrates that true tolerance means respecting the harmless quirks of others.

Keller's picture book Cecil's Garden focuses on a three rabbits who quibble about what seeds to plant in their garden plot until one of their numbers—Cecil—realizes that disagreement like this, which cause great arguments, usually have simple solutions. Booklist contributor Gillian Engberg called Cecil's Garden a "sunny story about cooperation," while in Publishers Weekly a reviewer noted that Keller's illustrations "possess a sophisticated color sensibility even as they play up the . . . comedy" in a succession of silly arguments. Also featuring animal characters, Farfallina and Marcel finds a caterpillar and a gosling becoming fast friends, even after they both transform into a more mature phase of life. Calling the book a "deceptively simple story of friendship," a Publishers Weekly reviewer dubbed Keller's work "perfectly paced," while in Christian Century a critic praised Farfallina and Marcel as "quietly dramatic and beautifully illustrated," noting that Keller effectively intertwines the rhythms of nature with the strong bonds of true friendship.

In addition to writing and illustrating her own picture books, Keller has also created artwork for stories by other writers, such as Paul Showers, Wendy Pfeffer, and Anne Rockwood. While she initially limited her own writing to short picture-book texts, Keller has expanded into the easy-reader chapter-book format with I Am An gela and Angela's Top-Secret Computer Club. The first book details five episodes in the life of feisty Angela. including playing softball at camp, visiting the zoo with her Scout troop, creating a class exhibit, and becoming a dog walker. Booklist contributor Stephanie Zvirin noted that in I Am Angela "there's always some goofy complication in the goings-on to ensure laughs." In Angela's Top-Secret Computer Club, after someone breaks in to the school's computer system and misprints all the student report cards, Angela and her computer-whiz friends are called on to solve the mystery before total chaos ensues. In her Booklist review, Kay Weisman called Angela's Top-Secret Computer Club an "upbeat mystery" and wrote that Keller's entertaining illustrations combine with her creation of an "intrepid heroine" in a book that "hits just the right note" with novice readers.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Authors of Books for Young People, 3rd edition, Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ), 1990.

Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995, pp. 363-364.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 45, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997, pp. 43-61.


Booklist, June 15, 1984, Ilene Cooper, review of Geraldine's Blanket, p. 1484; April 1, 1985, Ilene Cooper, review of Henry's Fourth of July, p. 1120; February 11, 1991, Ilene Cooper, review of Horace, p. 1130; March 15, 1992, p. 1388; May 15, 1997, Stephanie Zvirin, review of I Am Angela, p. 1575; Carolyn Phelan, review of Merry Christmas, Geraldine, September 1, 1997, p. 139; Carolyn Phelan, review of Brave Horace, March 1, 1998, p. 1140; August 19, 1998, Kay Weisman, review of Angela's Top-Secret Computer Club, p. 1140; February 15, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of Snow Is Falling, p. 1115; August, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of That's Mine, Horace, p. 2147; March 1, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Growing like Me, p. 1284; February 1, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of Cecil's Garden, p. 947; September 15, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of Farfallina and Marcel, p. 240; September 15, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of What a Hat!, p. 246.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, July, 1990, p. 269; March, 1998, p. 247.

Christian Century, December 13, 2003, review of Farfallina and Marcel, p. 25.

Growing Point, March, 1984, Margery Fisher, review of Ten Sleepy Sheep, p. 4220.

Horn Book, May-June, 1990, p. 326; November-December, 1990, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Henry's Happy Birthday, p. 729; November-December, 1994, p. 720; November-December, 1995, p. 734; May-June, 1996, p. 325; July-August, 1998, p. 475; March-April, 1999, p. 193; July, 2000, review of That's Mine, Horrace, p. 437; September, 2001, review of Growing like Me, p. 615; November-December, 2003, Susan Dove Lempke, review of What a Hat!, p. 731.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1983, review of Ten Sleepy Sheep, p. J150; March 1, 1984, review of Geraldine's Blanket, pp. J5-J6; April 15, 1993, p. 531; August 15, 1994, p. review of Geraldine's Baby Brother, 1131; July 15, 1995, p. 1025; February 15, 1998, p. 269; March 15, 1999, p. 452; December 15, 2001, review of Cecil's Garden, p. 1759; August 1, 2003, review of What a Hat!, p. 1019.

Language Arts, January, 1989, Janet Hickman, review of Geraldine's Big Snow, pp. 65-66.

Publishers Weekly, April 5, 1991, p. 145; April 26, 1993, p. 77; March 23, 1998, p. 98; March 12, 2001, review of Growing like Me, p. 88; December 24, 2001, review of Cecil's Garden, p. 64; July 29, 2002, review of Farfallina and Marcel, p. 71; October 6, 2003, review of What a Hat!, p. 84.

School Library Journal, March, 1982, Carolyn Noah, review of Cromwell's Glasses, p. 136; February, 1989, Trev Jones, review of Geraldine's Big Snow, p. 72; August, 1990, pp. 143-144; April, 1991, Anna Biagioni Hart, review of Horace, p. 97; November, 1991, p. 100; November, 1992, p. 72; August, 1994, Harriett Fargnoli, review of Geraldine's Baby Brother, p. 133; May, 1996, Virginia Opocensky, review of Geraldine First, p. 93; April, 1998, Jody McCoy, review of Brave Horace, p. 102; June, 1998, pp. 111-112; May, 2000, Kay Bowles, review of Snow Is Falling, p. 160; June, 2000, Marianne Saccardi, review of That's Mine, Horace, p. 116; April, 2001, Judith Constantinides, review of Growing like Me, p. 134; March, 2002, Karen Scott, review of Cecil's Garden, p. 190; October, 2002, Maryann H. Owen, review of Farfallina and Marcel, p. 114; October, 2003, Leanna Manna, review of What a Hat!, p. 128.
Times Literary Supplement, September 30, 1983, Sarah Wintle, review of Too Big, p. 1050.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 13, 1992, p. 7.*

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - PersonalHolly Keller (1942-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Writings