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Big Picture Image The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart; illus. by David Small. Farrar, 1997. 34p
ISBN 0-374-32517-0$15.00 6-10 yrs

Stewart's elegantly simple prose in Lydia Grace's letters exudes a sunny optimism without ever forcing the reader into false sentimentality. Apt and understated little phrases capture the essence of the child's courage and triumph in a difficult situation as she takes on the challenge of her dour uncle: "I wrote a long poem for Uncle Jim. He didn't smile, but I think he liked it. He read it aloud, then put it in his shirt pocket and patted it." After she discovers a secret place (a garbage-strewn urban rooftop), her gardener's spirit is released: "I'm playing a great trick on Uncle Jim. He sees me reading my mail, planting seeds in the window boxes, going to school, doing my homework, sweeping the floor. But he never sees me working in my secret place." Neither do we. "Love to all, Lydia Grace. P.S.," she adds, "I'm planning on a big smile from Uncle Jim in the near future"--and so are we.

Small's watercolor and pen art uses earthtoned backgrounds as a nostalgic showcase for the tiny splashes of pastels on the people and the flowers that are the stars of this book. The illustrations warmly evoke the ambience of the 1930s from busy cityscapes to interior scenes (complete with FDR's picture on the wall of the bakery). Lydia Grace's plight as she journeys by train from her country home is visually poignant: her slightness is exaggerated as she stands alone in her pale blue homemade frock against the towering charcoal caverns of the cathedral-like city train station. Small sets the spirited carrot-topped heroine against the background in each spread like a tiny little gem--and that is just what she is. This isn't merely a very pretty picture book. This is a stellar tribute to the spirit of a young girl who meets obstacles head on and celebrates her gifts within the boundaries of her small world.


                July 4, 1936
Dearest Mama, Papa, and Grandma,
        I am bursting with happiness!  The entire city seems so 
beautiful, especially this morning.
        The secret place is ready for Uncle Jim.  At noon, the store
will close for the holiday and then we'll bring him up to the roof.
        I've tried to remember everything you ever taught me about
beauty.
                Love to all,
                Lydia Grace
P.. I can already imagine Uncle Jim's smile.

We finally see her secret garden, her goodbye gift to her taciturn uncle. She has transformed that city rooftop into a floral extravaganza with a riot of blossoms exploding like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Still no smile. But grab your hankies, because the final page packs an emotional wallop as Uncle Jim lovingly hugs his little niece in her familiar pale blue dress on her departure for home. A few expert strokes of Small's pen give Uncle Jim's face a scowling tenderness as he bids farewell to the little girl who made his solitary world bloom. We don't need to see him smile.

--Pat Mathews, Reviewer


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