Sarah Stewart's The Gardener
illustrated by David Small
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
Touching Depression-era story of a girl
The Gardener is one of those classics that parents will get just as much out of as their children. In fact, there's every chance you'll get more out of it, because the book contains a deceptively sophisticated story that only seems simple on the surface. Think of it as the book most likely to end with
"Mommy, why are you crying?"
Don't worry. They'll be tears of joy.
Set in 1935-6, in the heart of the Depression, the story is told in epistolary fashion, that is, through a series of letters written by the young female protagonist, Lydia Grace Finch.
She's being sent from her farm to live with her Uncle Jim, a baker in the big city. She's being sent because she's one more mouth to feed and Papa and Mama are out of work.
Lydia Grace is a "glass half full" child, and she accepts her change of venue uncomplainingly. She writes Uncle Jim,
I'm small, but strong, and I'll help you all I can. However, Grandma said to finish my schoolwork before doing anything else.
She arrives in the city and immediately observes two things:
The first item provides Lydia Grace a mission. The second provides her an opportunity to put her core competency to use.
Children will find the book a joy because it features a child setting out on her own and thriving in her own way by her own wits. Illustrator Small, who won a 1998 Caldecott Honor for his efforts, conveys just how large her challenge is by conveying just how large the world around her is. Lydia Grace is dwarfed not just by the big city but by the big people she finds herself among.
The joy to parents comes in seeing a little one - sent from the nest prematurely - nevertheless thriving and succeeding, and doing so on precisely her own terms, with her own unique skill set. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that the joy Lydia Grace brings to her Mama, Papa and Grandma, she manages to bring to unsmiling Uncle Jim as well.
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