The Gardener


Written by Sarah Stewart, Illustrated by David Small

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997

Awards: Caldecott Honor

August 27, 1935

Dear Uncle Jim,

Grandma told us after supper that you want me to come to the city and live with you until things get better.

The plot in a nutshell:  A country girl who loves gardening finds a way to bring her passion to the big city

When her parents are struggling with unemployment during the Depression, Lydia Grace is sent to live and work with her Uncle Jim in the city, who owns a bakery and rarely smiles. She learns her job in the bakery, but her real interest is in gardening. She plants seeds in all the flower boxes near the bakery and starts a project on the rooftop, which she calls her secret place. Neighbors start to visit Lydia Grace for help with their own gardens. On July 4th, she leaves signs directing Uncle Jim to go up to the roof. When he gets there, he sees that it’s covered with plants and flowers. Lydia Grace and two of her co-workers have sparklers and a picnic meal set up. A week later, Uncle Jim takes her up to the roof and then he comes up with a cake and a letter from her parents letting her know that her father has a new job and she can come home.

This was the first book from author Sarah Stewart and the first of six books in which she collaborated with her husband, illustrator David Small. Lydia Grace is a wonderful role model, staying positive and focused on adding beauty to the lives of those around her during a time when positivity was hard to embrace. I love the use of letter writing as a framework for this story, because it takes the reader back to a time before emails and texts, when letter writing was a beautifully expressive way to communicate with your loved ones far away.  Ms. Stewart loves gardening herself and I think that love comes through in the story.

Can't you just see how overjoyed she is with that cake?

Can’t you just see how overjoyed she is with that cake?

Mr. Small’s illustrations show us more, of course, than Lydia Grace is putting in her letters. The city is represented in somewhat washed out colors, making the flowers really pop off the page when we see Lydia Grace’s rooftop garden in all its glory for the first time. We never get to really see Uncle Jim smile, as she hopes he will, but the final picture of him embracing her at the train station is so warm and emotional that there is no doubt that he cares for her. This is a wonderful story that anyone can enjoy, but I imagine it would be particularly inspirational to kids whose parents are between jobs or down on their luck.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that sharing a bit of yourself with those around you can make a strange place feel like home in no time.


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