Title: The Gardener
Author: Sarah Stewart
Publisher: NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Grade Level: 2nd-5th
Extension Objectives: Students will consider what constitutes a garden as they learn about growing in containers.
How the story grows
Set during the Great Depression, this Caldecott Honor book (1998) tells the story of a girl who is sent to live with her baker uncle in the city as her family back home copes with job losses and hunger. Lydia Grace Finch’s letters to her parents and grandma tell the story of her trip, her adjustment to life in a dreary city, and her plucky determination to bring flowers to her new home and a smile to her uncle’s face. Lydia Grace spends almost a year with Uncle Jim. Signs of passing time include the dates on Lydia Grace’s letters, a Christmas tree, and Fourth of July sparklers. The structure of the calendar year allows the reader to gain a sense of the life cycle of bulb planting and blooming.
In the same way that many of us seek solace and pleasure in our gardens, Lydia Grace turns to gardening to cope with the difficulties of her situation. Her gardens are an extension of her family’s traditions, and reflect personal characteristics such as determination and optimism, and showcase her horticultural know-how. The book is peppered with gardening terms such as seeds, window-boxes, bulbs, roots, sprouting, dirt, flowers, and container gardening.
There are plenty of details to pore over in the award-winning illustrations; Lydia Grace’s story actually begins in the endpages. Attentive readers of all ages will enjoy the historical details of the buildings and the workings of the bakery as well as the delightfully embedded story of the cat. David Small uses pen and ink to convey facial expressions that support character development, and watercolors to present both the monochromatic dreariness of the Great Depression and to highlight the bright colored flowers that sustain Lydia Grace and offer the ultimate surprise that makes Uncle Jim smile.
The biological backstory
Lydia Grace is a child who endures extraordinary hardships with equanimity and from the beginning it is clear that she is a gardener. This is arguably the central botanical theme explored in this book – what is a gardener? In the opening endpage, Lydia Grace is seen in a flourishing garden back home with her grandmother. The size and scope of this space establishes that this is a family that knows how to garden. In contrast, Lydia Grace arrives in the city in summer – what should be the peak of the growing season – yet not a single plant is seen and, equally surprising, there is no soil evident. Without these two key elements (plants and soil), is it possible to still be a gardener? Undeterred, Lydia Grace assembles what she needs: seeds, bulbs, and soil, but the key challenge for an urban gardener is space which Lydia Grace eventually finds in “cracked teacups and bent cake pans.”
Next month's column will feature Jack's Garden, by Henry Cole, (Greenwillow Books 1997, ISBN-10:068815283X), a cumulative story chockfull of visual and textual gardening information.