Perfect Square by Michael Hall. 2011. New York: HarperCollins. Unpaginated. 

Genre: Picture book that’s part adventure story, part philosophical essay

Ages: Primary and up. The text is minimal and easy to read/understand on a literal level. But the story is thought provoking enough to engage older readers of all ages.

Features:Bright primary colors, super large print, collage art


Here’s a book with a most unusual hero: a red square. In the beginning, the square is perfect—or is it? It has matching corners and equal sides, just as any square should. So . . . what more is there to wish for? Well, as they say, life is what happens to us while we’re making other plans—or perhaps while we’re just standing around being, uh, square. Life hits this shapely hero rather hard, in a series of unforeseen events that have potentially disastrous consequences, but wind up pushing this clever little geometric character into some imaginative ways of coping. On Monday, for example, the square is cut into pieces and poked full of holes. Sounds bad. But it’s actually an artistic opportunity in disguise, for the square gamely transforms itself into a bubbling fountain. And so it goes—through a week’s worth of colorful adventures that force the square to get more creative by the day. Things come to a head on Sunday, when nothing much happens, and our foxy hero is disappointed to be left hanging about in its original, now old-hat shape. Luckily, the artistic lessons of the previous week have not been lost on the tough and savvy square, who comes up with a brilliant and satisfying solution.

The story line is eminently simple; but the story beneath the story has both depth and universal implications: In making the best of misfortune, we grow not only wiser and more courageous, but also (perhaps ironically) increasingly dissatisfied with our former lives and selves. And for the spunky among us, it seems, life’s little speed bumps are the very things that make the journey interesting.

Author Michael Hall is an award winning graphic designer, and the art has an elegant simplicity that gives the book enormous eye appeal.  

If you’re looking for literature to introduce very young readers/writers to the narrative basics of the Common Core Standards (for both reading and writing), this is your book. It’s short enough to read more than once, engaging enough that your students will enjoy that, and deep enough to prompt good discussions about difficult days and the consequences of our reactions. It would also make an outstanding graduation gift or coffee table book.  


In the Classroom

  1. Reading. As always, you’ll want to preview the book prior to sharing. Read it more than once, and give yourself time to think about the implications of this deceptively simple plot.
  2. Common Core. Prior to sharing the book with students, you may wish to refresh your memory about the Common Core requirements relating to narrative reading and literature, as well as narrative writing. The Common Core asks young readers to notice and discuss characters, settings, and major events within a story. In particular, this is a book in which character (a square that becomes very creative) and events (both challenges and solutions) play a major, ongoing role. Young narrative writers are asked to demonstrate writing skills relating to sequence, detail, use of temporal words, and a strong sense of closure. Because Perfect Square so beautifully illustrates each of these, it’s an ideal model for showing young writers how such elements contribute to a strong narrative.
  3. Sharing with students. We recommend using a document projector, if possible, when sharing this book. The illustrations tell much of the story, so you’ll want to make sure everyone can see them clearly. Take your time reading, though, so students can make . . .
  4. Predictions! One of the very best things about this book is that Hall doesn’t rush through the story. He tells just a little bit at a time, and in a way that follows a pattern: On Monday, this happened, and here’s what the square did about it . . . On Tuesday, this happened, and here’s what the square did about it . . . This pattern beautifully illustrates the concept of sequence (see item 6), and also allows students to guess (1) what will happen next, and (2) how the square will deal with this latest challenge. Each challenge is different, so the square’s creativity is continually tested.
  5. Character (Common Core reading). What is the square like? What do we know about it? Does it change through the course of the story? Talk about this with your students. (You may wish to point out that characters often change in stories, and this is something interesting to listen for—not just with this book, but with any good narrative.) Also—did your students notice that the author always refers to the square as “it”? Why? We are used to calling characters “he” or “she.” Even storms often have male or female names. Ships and countries, cities and schools are usually referred to as “she.” But the little red square is “it.” What do your students think? Why might the author make this choice?
  6. Sequence of events. More than one thing happens in this story; indeed, many things happen. Hence the term, “sequence” of events.This is a handy expression for young writers to know because it makes it easy to talk with them about plot. After reading the story the first time, see how many events your students can recall; they may or may not recall them in order. Remember that each event has two parts: what happens, and what the square does about it. A sequence of events should be easy to follow—and should also have a main event (high point, turning point) that stands out. Is that true of this book? What stands out? Many students may say that the most striking (or important) event occurs at the end of the story when the square, no longer satisfied to be “perfect,” transforms itself into a window. This truly is the turning point—but, how do we know that? After all, the square does many amazing things. What’s so special about the window episode?
  7. Temporal words. Temporal words signify the passing of time and help link events in a reader’s mind. Ask your students to listen for words that tell when something happens in the story. (On Monday, On Tuesday, etc.) If they are currently working on narratives of their own, ask them to look for “time” words (or words that tell when) in their own writing: words like Later, The next day, In a while, Next, Then, In a few minutes, Just then, After that, and so on. Together, brainstorm a class list to help students keep the concept of temporal, or time, words and phrases in their minds. Talk about why words like this help readers follow a story.
  8. Closure. “Closure” is another good word to teach young writers. It refers to the end, of course, but it also implies that the ending is satisfying. It feels right. It answers some of our readers’ questions. A good ending sometimes comes as a surprise, but it usually shows that the main character has changed or grown or learned something important. Is that true in Perfect Square? If so, what has the main character learned? Is this an ending we could say has closure? To help your young writers understand this, try to imagine a different ending. Suppose, for instance, that at the very end of the book, the square were crumpled into a ball—and then could not figure out what to do. So nothing more happened. Would that ending have closure? Why not?
  9. Message. In a good narrative, the author is usually trying to teach us something. What could this author be trying to tell us about life? Have students write their opinions about this.
  10. Behind the scenes. Someone or something keeps interfering with the red square’s life: cutting it into strips, punching holes in it, tearing it into scraps, and so on. Who or what is doing this? (Though there is no right or wrong answer to this, students love speculating about it, and may come up with intriguing possibilities.) Also, does someone help the square come up with solutions to its various predicaments—or does the square do this all by itself? Is this important? What do you think the author might be trying to show us?
  11. 11.   Feelings. On Sunday, nothing happens. Suddenly, the four sides of the square feel “confining.” Discuss this with your students. What does “confining” mean? Have they ever felt this way? When or why? Also notice that the square’s corners suddenly feel “rigid and cramped”? What do these words mean to your students? Talk about why the square experiences these feelings at this point—toward the end of the book—when it once felt just “perfect.” What caused such a change?
  12. Verbs! This book has what one student called “verby power”—which is to say, it makes good use of verbs: babbled, giggled, torn, shredded. Talk about what a verb is, and have students listen for and identify a few of the verbs they notice. What, specifically, do verbs add to writing? Have students close their eyes as they listen to some of the verbs. What do they picture in their minds? Have them describe what they see. Who has a favorite verb from this book that he or she might use in a piece of personal writing?
  13. Creating . . . art & text! This book makes young writers just itch to do an art and writing project of their own. You might begin with red squares—or with any shapes, any color. Students may also wish to change shapes or colors as they go along, so provide plenty of colored paper if you can, and show them how to tear it carefully, or consider providing Kraft Edge scissors if you have them. Encourage students to think inventively in choosing shapes to work with: hearts, pumpkins, snowmen, mountains, wheels, leaf piles, kites, clouds, anthills, tree trunks, etc. Maybe a book. Anything that can change and reshape itself. Give students as much freedom as possible to invent both problems and solutions for their main “characters.” Beginners might try just one problem and solution, while more adventurous and/or experienced writers may want to do a whole series (a sequence of events, as in the book).  
  14. Opinion (Common Core argument writing). As human beings, are we anything like the square? If so, in what way? Have students write about this and explain how or why the square might remind us of a person.
  15. Opinion (Common Core argument writing). Is the square more “perfect” at the beginning of the book—or at the end of the book? What does the author mean by “perfect” anyway? Ask students to write an opinion piece about this.
  16. Opinion (Common Core argument writing). Some online reviewers think adults might like this book as much as young readers. Do your students agree or disagree? Ask them to write an opinion piece about this. You may wish to post some responses online.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Coming up soon, look for reviews of John Green’s stunning young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars, followed by a close-up look at the Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Velchin. As always, we’ll help you make connections to both traits and the Common Core Standards. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and if you enjoy our posts, please tell your friends. Remember, for the BEST teacher training seamlessly blending traits, standards, workshop, and writing process, call 503-379-3034. Give every child a voice.