A blog by children's book author Michelle Markel about books, teaching and writing.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Picture Books for Hard Times: Day 2
Today, a look at The Gardener by Sarah Stewart (illustrated by her husband, David Small.)
Like all the hard time books I’ve chosen for this week, The Gardener is told in the first person/lyrical voice, though it’s in the form of letters. The narrator writes in the present tense about past events, giving us immediate access to her feelings.
The set-up: While her father looks for work in a rural area, Lydia is sent to live with her undemonstrative baker/uncle in the city.
Lydia devises a secret plan to win over her uncle (the outward goal is to make him smile). Suspense builds til the end, when we learn that she has covertly grown scores of flowers to transform the bakery's dirty unkempt roof into a lovely oasis.
We feel Lydia's excitement as she hatches and executes her secret plan. Her letters home bubble with enthusiasm: “My heart is pounding so hard I’m sure the customers can hear it downstairs!”
At the end of the book, the shop is closed so Lydia, her uncle and the bakery workers can have a party in the rooftop garden. The uncle brings out a cake covered in flowers, a cake that “equals one thousand smiles.” It turns out there’s more to celebrate, for Papa has found a job and Lydia will be going home.
Stewart uses just a few telling details to show Lydia’s circumstances at the beginning of the story. In her letter to her uncle she writes, “Did I tell you that Papa has been out of work for a long time, and no one asks Mama to make dresses anymore? We all cried, even Papa.” She wears one of her mother’s dresses, made over for her, on the train.
David Small's exquisite illustrations pack emotional wallop in the scenes, while dramatically evoking the Depression era setting.
The Gardener has much in common with A Chair For My Mother (see yesterday's post). In both books, the main characters have supportive environments (in the former, friends and neighbors bring Lydia plants and containers). Both girls are positive and singlemindedly focused on their goal- they're both working towards something concrete, and beautiful. But Lydia- a rural girl who knows all about growing things- takes pleasure in using her talent to benefit someone else. The goal involves expressing her own identity (her parents have taught her about beauty. Neighbors call her “the gardener.”)
Michelle Markel's books for children span a variety of genres including fiction, non-fiction and creative non-fiction. Her critically acclaimed biographies include BRAVE GIRL: CLARA AND THE SHIRTWAIST MAKERS' STRIKE OF 1909 and THE FANTASTIC JUNGLES OF HENRI ROUSSEAU. Michelle teaches a class in Writing the Picture Book at UCLA Extension's Writers Program and is a founding member of CAN!, the Children’s Authors Network.
BRAVE GIRL: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909, Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
My Latest Artist Biography
THE FANTASTIC JUNGLES OF HENRI ROUSSEAU:Illustrated by Amanda Hall
Honors for The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau: 2013 PEN/Steven Kroll Award for Picture Book Writing, Junior Library Guild, one of the New York Public Library's 100 Titles for Reading for Sharing, Booklist's Top Ten Arts Books for Youth, top 10 picture books of 2012 by The Guardian UK, a Bank St. College of Education Best Children's Book of 2013, Parents' Choice Gold Award, Red Clover Nominee.
Illustrated by Doug Cushman
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