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.”)

Tomorrow- another predicament, another solution.


  1. Speaking of hard times, the book _Finding a Job for Daddy_, published by Albert Whitman & Co. some years ago, is still, I believe, one of the few picture books for young children that address the issue of unemployment.

    When I wrote it (using the name Evelyn Hughes Maslac), my then-husband had been out of work for more than a year, and both of us wondered how parents explain the financial impact of that predicament to little kids. It can be a scary and uncertain time!

    In the story, though, young Laura figures out that no matter what her father’s outside employment situation is, he will always have the most important job of all—being her daddy.

    “I really like that you didn’t give it a Shirley Temple–style ending,” a friend commented when the book was released, “with the little girl winning over a gruff old rich guy who ends up giving a job to her father.” I laughed, since that kind of feel-good conclusion hadn’t even tempted me.

    Losing your job stinks, looking for work is tough, and holding it together for your family is stressful and difficult. But loving parents do it, and I have tremendous respect for them, especial during this recession.

    Kudos to Michelle for calling attention to good books that can help!

  2. Evelyn,

    Kudos to YOU for addressing this issue directly. You're right, we can give children perspective on their situation, other ways of personally coping with it, without resorting to sugary Shirley Temple endings.