by Phyllis Root and Jacqueline Briggs Martin
It’s high summer in the garden, with an abundance of vegetables to harvest and flowers abuzz with pollinators. Crunchy carrots, leafy kale, sun-warm tomatoes, garlic bulbs, green beans, zucchini (some gigantic) all offer themselves to the gardener. But more grows in a garden than plants. People grow, too, and connections between people take root and blossom. Two lovely picture books about growing things and the people who grow with them are The Gardener by Sarah Stewart with pictures by David Small (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux , 1997) and The Grandad Tree by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Sharon Wilson (Candlewick Press, 2000).
The Gardener is an epistolary picture book (a category worthy of its own blog post), told in letters from a young girl, Lydia Grace, sent from her home in the country to live in the city with her Uncle Jim during the Depression until “things get better.” She writes first to her Uncle Jim, then back home to Mama, Papa, and Grandma. Although Uncle Jim doesn’t ever smile, Lydia Grace is excited by the window boxes she sees in the city, by learning to bake bread in her uncle’s bakery, and by the store cat Otis who sleeps on her bed.
With help from her family back home who sends her bulbs and seedlings and seed catalogues, from Emma who works in the bakery with her husband Ed, and from neighbors who give her containers in which to plant flowers and call her “the gardener,” Lydia Grace sets about making gardens in pots and filling windows boxes with radishes onions, and lettuce. But what fills her with “great plans” is her discovery at the top of a fire escape of the building’s roof (shown in a wordless spread), littered with trash and just waiting for the dirt she hauls from a vacant lot.
All the while, Lydia hopes for a smile from Uncle Jim.
When her “secret place” is ready, Lydia Grace, Emma, and Ed bring Uncle Jim to the roof garden in a glorious double page wordless spread, which parallels the first view of the roof, now transformed.
A week later, when Lydia Grace learns that her papa has got a job and that she’s going home Uncle Jim closes the shop, sends Ed and Emma and Lydia Grace to the roof garden, and brings Lydia Grace a cake covered in flowers. Lydia Grace writes, “I truly believe that cake equals one thousand smiles.” The last page, also wordless, shows Uncle Jim hugging Lydia Grace as they wait for her to board the train home. In the grim grey city, Lydia Grace has grown more than beautiful flowers and a garden, she has grown a connection with her uncle, Emma, Ed, and the neighbors. As she writes in the P. S. of her last letter, “We gardeners never retire.” In this book, the deepest emotions are not said in words but with flowers, with cake, and with silent hugs. Even the wordless spreads convey the book’s heart — that plants and people can bloom in the grayest surroundings.
There is a tree
at the bottom of Leigh’s garden.
An apple tree.
Vin, Leigh’s big brother, said
it started as a seed
and then grew
And Vin said
where they used to play
that apple tree
will be there…
The text goes on to tell how Grandad was a baby once, then a boy who climbed coconut trees near the sea where he lived, then a man and a husband and a dad and a granddad for Leigh and Vin. “That’s life,” Grandad would say.
The apple tree blossoms in spring as the art shows Vin and Leigh playing ball with Grandad. In summer, as the apples grow, Grandad plays his violin for the children under the tree. He watches them harvest apples as the leaves fall, and he watches from the window as they build a snowman in the winter. The text continues,
And sometimes things die,
Leigh and Vin and their momma remember Grandad as Vin plays his violin, and Leigh plants a seed beside the apple tree to grow and grow, to go through changes, and for them to love forever and ever
just like they’ll always love Grandad.
In few words and glowing illustrations, Cooke and Wilson bring together the seasons of a tree and of a life lived and show how while things change, some things, like Leigh and Vin’s love for Grandad and his for them, will last forever.
Comfort, love, relationships can all bloom along with the wide world of growing things. Even when harvest is upon us gardeners, it’s good to remember that seeds will hold next year’s gardens close inside. Who knows what will blossom there beyond fruits and flowers?
Other books about growing things that we love:
- Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams
- Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
- The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins
- Wangari’s Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter