Review of The Gardener by Sara Stewart, illustrated by David Small (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997). A Caldecott Honor book.
It's 1935, and Lydia Grace Finch is on the train, traveling from her grandparent's farmhouse in the country, to her Uncle Jim in the big city. The Great Depression has put Lydia's father out of work, but Uncle Jim can use some help in his bakery, and Lydia is just right for the job.
In a series of letters, first to her Uncle Jim, then to her family back home, Lydia narrates a story of her own inner strength that gives her the courage to travel alone, to a new home in a strange new place, yet never succumb to fear and doubt.
For Lydia is a gardener, and with her she carries a gardener's hope and packets of seeds. She tells her Uncle Jim that she knows a lot about gardening and nothing about baking, but she's anxious to learn about baking, and is there any place to plant seeds?
Uncle Jim never smiles, but he's no ogre, either, and Lydia fits right in. She's excited to find that there are window boxes on the bakery building and the rooms upstairs where they live, though the window boxes are empty.
Throughout the winter, Lydia works in the bakery learning the trade -- and works quietly on a secret that she's building with cracked teacups, bent cakepans, and dirt from a vacant lot down the street. Up the fire escape she discovers a secret place where she can carry out her plans, with the help of one of her uncle's assistants.
The comes spring, and Lydia's suprise blossoms -- literally -- in window boxes, half-barrels, and, best of all, in Lydia's surprise for her uncle.
The Gardener is a beautiful picture book for children, but you don't need kids in the house to enjoy its lovely illustrations and timeless message. Send a copy to any displaced gardener you know who is stuck in the city without a speck of dirt to dig, or keep a copy for yourself to cheer the gray winter months.