They say that children’s books are inherently didactic. Particularly those of the picture book variety. There’s an idea that you can’t tell a story to a child without including some of your own personal values in the midst of the tale. And this may be true since immoral children’s books are few and far between (Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book excepted, of course). The trick then is to tell a tale without bludgeoning the child over the head with the message. Get too preachy and both kids and parents will shy away from the material. Not preachy enough and you’re basically just placing words on a page without much in the way of rhyme or reason. Enter The Curious Garden, which is just about the perfect balance of message and text. I’ll admit to you right off the bat that I read the book once, and then put it away without another thought. Then I read the book a second time and my interest was peaked. About the moment I read the book a third time I was hooked for good. Peter Brown’s story isn’t what one would call exactly subtle, but what he’s managed to do here is tell a good story without falling into the usual traps and trials so many environmental picture books have found themselves enmeshed in before. No small feat.
In a city like any city where the people spend their time mostly indoors, there lives a boy named Liam. A curious lad, one day Liam stumbles on a stairwell that leads up to some old railway tracks. Upon following the tracks he is delighted to discover a small patch of green in need of a gardener. Though at first he makes a lot of mistakes, Liam becomes better and better at helping the tough little weeds and flowers to grow. The garden, which is as curious as Liam, spreads. Sometimes in a good way. Sometimes in a bad way. And as people notice the growth they too are inspired to start their own gardens. Years later, the city is transformed and Liam (who has married and had children in the interim) is still there. Pruning and tending and happy. Inspired by the beauty of New York’s High Line park (an old elevated railway recently converted into a lush garden) Brown tells the tale of a city melded with nature, producing something utterly new and entirely beautiful.
Does every story need a villain? It usually needs some form of antagonist, yes. Someone or something that stands between our hero and his goal. In this book, though, there isn’t much standing in Liam’s way aside from his own self-doubt and, possibly, the cold winter months that render the garden dead and brown. Considering the nature (ha ha) of the story, you would think that Brown would have been inclined to add some evil industrialist or Once-ler ala The Lorax. The funny thing is that the lack of a bad guy doesn’t hurt the book. Some are bound to be put off by the easygoing nature of the story, but since it’s starting from a point of conflict I don’t feel an overwhelming need for Brown to add to that. As Liam’s fighting decay with wildlife, that’s your essential point of conflict right there. A villain with a twirling moustache and shiny pinstriped suit would be out of place in this book.
I’ve always been a sucker for industrial beauty. It’s probably why I’m such a huge Ezra Jack Keats fan. Now there was an author/illustrator who knew how to capture the beauty of rust and machinery and graffiti. The city was a raucous riot of color under his hand and everybody knew it. Peter Brown’s book actually does something similar, though his intentions are different. The beauty of the city is still here, but it’s the beauty that comes when the man made mixes and melds with nature. Railway lines into long gardens. Rooftops sporting treetops. Ivy curling up chipped paint and abandoned walls. I still like to find beauty in abandoned tracks and rusted metal, but Brown’s making a strong case here for the beauty of the abandoned in a whole new way.
In terms of the art, Brown is working here with acrylic and gouache on board. His style is so slick and smooth, though, that you might initially mistake it for computer graphics of one sort or another. It’s a lot of fun to watch what Brown does with light and color too. Liam’s hair is red, his eyes are blue, and at first he’s the only spot of color in a dank, dreary, grey/brown world. Brown has also done a clever thing with the little tree that Liam begins by tending. It hasn’t exactly been anthropomorphized (for all intents and purposes this is a fairly realistic story) but Brown has drawn the leaves in such a way that it looks like the tree has closed its multiple eyes and smiled with multiple smiles. It’s not an obvious detail, but it gives the story a certain friendliness you might miss on an initial pass. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll see that at the end Liam is now an adult and the text reads, “And you could always find Liam in the place where it all began.” Sure as shooting, there he is, tending to that same tree, no longer a little shrub but a great big impressive, and still smiling, companion.
There are little things about the art that flicker on the outside of your eyeballs without ever directly catching your eye entirely. The smog, for example. It’s everywhere. You don’t even notice it on a first or second reading. Look closely, though, and you’ll see that pernicious brown soot and smoke lurking in the corners of each page’s borders. It starts as early as the title page, like the dirty fingerprints of a polluted sky. In lingers on the edges of every page until you reach the final two-page spread. It’s still there, mind you. Licking the edges of the left-hand page. But as your eye moves slowly to the right, you might notice that the brown fug evaporates. As this story takes place in an industrial town, it would be too much to expect that the population suddenly found a new industry to support themselves, but Brown has hidden little hints as to why there might be less air pollution. Maybe it’s the abundance of trees soaking up the carbon dioxide. Maybe it’s the windmills, which have apparently been constructed out of the old smokestacks of a factory or two. Alternative clean air energy? Maybe so. In any case, it provides parents with an excuse to talk to their kids about pollution in cities and the different ways of getting rid of it.
Of course the book this reminded me of the most was probably Home by Jeannie Baker. In both books, industry is tackled by those citizens who take an interest in natural beautification. Folks have embraced this book as an environmental tale, and I suppose that it is. But I really do believe that its purpose, first and foremost, is to simply tell a good story. If you happen to learn a nice lesson as a result, that’s all well and good, but the tale is key here, not the message. Brown has created his best picture book yet. One that is bound to be enjoyed and loved by families for generations to come.
On shelves now.
- 100 Scope Notes
- Brimful Curiosities
- Crazy for Kids Books
- Let(t)’er Rip
- Crow’s Nest
- Journey of a Bookseller
- Wee Required Reading
- The Boy Reader
- Children’s Atheneum
- The Super Mom
- Hooray for Books!
- Hope Is the Word
- Muddy Puddle Musings
- I Most Definitely Control the Spice
- Listen to the audio of an interview with Peter Brown over at Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon. Failing that, there’s this audio review from the New York Times Book Review Podcast.
- Editor Alvina Ling gives a behind-the-scenes look at the book here.
- Download a pretty little Curious Garden poster here.