Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, June 30, 2022

How Does It Grow

When your childhood is spent with gardeners, it is easy to become a gardener yourself.  You find yourself scanning perennial, annual, and seed catalogs in the winter.  You plot out your gardens.  You dig, rake, hoe, and plant.  They know you by name at the local nurseries.  You wait, watch, weed, and water, working in partnership with the weather.  After decades, you still marvel at the yield.  You are astonished at the colors and smells of the flowers. You savor the scents and tastes of the vegetables and herbs.

As a gardener, it is easy to believe in miracles because even though you work hard, the results are a beautiful, sometimes unexpected, bounty.  Uncle John's City Garden (Holiday House, May 3, 2022) written by Bernette G. Ford with illustrations by Frank Morrison celebrates the connections created between gardens, family, and food.  This book is based upon truth and wishes.

Everyone called me Li'l Sissy.

She was smaller than her older sister and her older brother.  They were individually shorter than their Uncle John, but if they stretched themselves out head to toe, they were taller than this giant of a man.  This story started with nothing but dirt.  A great area of dirt between tall brick city buildings called the projects.

Each of the siblings picked their own packets of seeds.  Each of the children were assigned their own rows for planting, labeled by their Uncle John.  There were rows for okra, tomatoes, onions, corn, and lima beans.  Uncle John had the rest of the rows.  

Li'l Sissy had a small shovel.  Her sister had a bigger shovel and her brother's shovel was the biggest of the three.  Uncle John made hills with his long-handled shovel and the children dug holes for their seeds in those hills.

Day by day the plants grew, were watered and weeded.  One day a huge thunderstorm raged.  Would the garden survive? It did and the vegetables seemed to have grown overnight.  Each day the children and their uncle harvested their vegetables.  A huge family barbeque showcased the garden treasures.  What do you think happened to all the rest of the vegetables?

As stated in her author's note, Bernette G. Ford based this narrative on visiting her Uncle John's urban garden in Brooklyn, New York during her summers.  This book answers her dream of spending an entire summer working in her uncle's garden.  Readers will appreciate the rhythm established by Bernette G. Ford using the technique of comparing the siblings by height, the seeds they select, the number of rows they plant, the size of their shovel handles, and the size of the garden plants.  As these comparisons unfold, it's almost like they mirror the growth of the garden, inch by inch, and foot by foot.  Here is a passage.

Uncle John showed us how to pick our crops.
He gave us bags to put our vegetables in.  Brother
had a big one for his corn and lima beans.  Sister's
bag was not as big as his.  My bag was little, like me.
We picked a lot of vegetables.  But every day when
we came back, the garden had grown some more.

For gardeners and those who enjoy the "fruits of gardeners' labors", the front, right side, of the matching dust jacket and book case is a sight to behold.  All those vegetables are radiating from the siblings and their uncle like the rays of sun are around Li'l Sissy.  The buildings behind them indicate the urban setting of this remarkable garden.  It is also here we are aware that Li'l Sissy will be the narrator of this story.  

To the left of the spine, on the back, set in a canvas of the rustic red color of the tomatoes is an oval image.  It is taken from the interior of the book.  It is a portion of the picture when Li'l Sissy and her mother are inspecting her okra plants.

The opening and closing endpapers are a rich garden green.  On the title page is a double-page picture of sky, buildings and rows of okra.  We are brought close to the seed packet label with the plants, building and sky as part of the background.  On the publication information page and dedication page, a child is skipping rope on the patch of dirt between the buildings.

Each of the two-page images (and two single-page pictures) by artist Frank Morrison were

created with oil paint and spray paint on illustration board.

There is a strength in the portrayals of all his characters, especially in their faces.  Sometimes Frank Morrison brings us close to a scene or gives us a more panoramic view as when the siblings first visit the garden between the buildings.  The children, even the child passing on a homemade scooter, are small compared to the land spread before them.  He brings us close to the children and their Uncle John several times.  During the storm Li'l Sissy's fear for the garden is depicted realistically as she looks out a window.  Her joy at holding a tomato with two hands because of its size will warm you from the top of your head to the tip of your toes.

One of my many favorite illustrations is a double-page picture.  We are very close to Li'l Sissy, her brother and sister and their Uncle John.  They have just completed the planting of all their seeds.  Uncle John stands behind the children as if enveloping them in a hug.  We see a portion of his face and upper body.  On the left is the brother and on the right is the sister.  Li'l Sissy is in the middle.  Her figure, because she is shorter, only shows the upper portion of her face.  She is wearing her huge straw hat.  Her face is to the left of the gutter but the hat spans on either side of the gutter.  They are all looking toward their accomplishment in anticipation.

This title, Uncle John's City Garden written by Bernette G. Ford with artwork by Frank Morrison, is an ode to a childhood memory and the act of gardening to grow your own food.  It certainly will inspire others to do the same thing.  At the close of the book is a recipe for succotash.  I highly recommend you place a copy of this book on both your personal and professional bookshelves.

To learn more about Bernette G. Ford and her work, you might want to read this article in The Horn Book where she and her husband were interviewed by Roger Sutton two years ago.  One year ago an obituary for Bernette G. Ford was written for Publishers Weekly.  It speaks about her many accomplishments.  To learn more about Frank Morrison and his other work, please visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  Frank Morrison has an account on Instagram.  At the publisher's website, you can download some activity sheets found in an event kit. 

For many gardeners, their creativity has more than one outlet, but they still desire to add color to their world through the planting of flowers.  Celia Planted A Garden: The Story Of Celia Thaxter And Her Island Garden (Candlewick Press, May 17, 2022) written by Phyllis Root and Gary D. Schmidt with illustrations by Melissa Sweet highlights the life of writer, painter, and gardener Celia Thaxter.  Her passion for the sea, her island homes, her gardens, and the natural world are beautifully showcased.

When Celia Laighton was very young, she lived on White Island, where the rocks were gray and white, and the waves that broke on the rocks were gray and white, and the seagulls that rode the sea were gray and white.

Celia planted marigolds among those rocks in the spring and observed the native plants in the summer.  In the autumn, she watched a variety of birds leave to fly south for the winter.  Sometimes at night she could see them flying in the beam of the lighthouse light.  In the harsh winters, Celia, her  two brothers, and parents survived some terrible storms.  In the spring Celia planted again.

At the age of twelve, Celia and her family moved to the island of Appledore, near White Island.  There her father built a hotel.  Celia planted a garden.  She gathered rain water to keep the plants healthy.  Celia was constantly at work in either her garden or at the hotel.  When she got older, Celia met and married Levi Thaxter.  He did not like Appledore Island.  They set up residence on the mainland.

Celia missed her islands, even their winters.  She missed her garden.  To fill her sadness, Celia wrote about the sea and her gardens.  They were published and received by those who longed for the sea and island life.  Celia filled her indoor space with flowers and grew many from seeds.  She began to paint about the sea, her islands, and flowers.

In the spring after winters on the mainland, Celia would sail to Appledore Island taking flowers with her and expanding her garden.  Birds loved her gardens (and the inside of her home).  One day a harsh summer storm pelted freezing rains on Appledore Island.  What Celia found the next day and what eventually happened is a testament to Celia and her garden.  Miracle?

The devotion Celia Thaxter had for the sea, her island homes, her gardens, and birds grows inside readers with every word written by authors Phyllis Root and Gary D. Schmidt.  Each revelation about the life of Celia Thaxter unfolds like the blossoms she loved so well.  The names of flowers and birds she adored are woven into the narrative.

As the seasons of the year and of Celia's life pass, we are presented with specific events to mark each one.  There is a repetition of certain words and phrases fashioning a rhythm.  We come to understand that these rhythms are kin to the rhythms of the seasons and they are the rhythms of Celiz Thaxter's life and her work.  Here is a passage.

Still, Celia planted a bigger garden than before, even though she had so much to do 
at the new hotel.  Artists and writers were coming to stay, and each summer day she
greeted the new guests and went out to plant.  She served in the hotel's dining room
and went out to weed.  She made up the guests' beds and went out to clip blossoms
for the vases on their dressers.

And on that rocky and waterless island, Celia's garden bloomed gloriously.

The highly intricate signature artwork of Melissa Sweet is evident on the open and matching dust jacket and book case.  Her blend of complementary hues and layers invites us to step into Celia Thaxter's world.  On the front, right side, she frames Celia at work in her island garden with intimate views of her flowers.  The presence of a hummingbird is a hint of wonder to come in this astonishing woman's life.  To the left of the spine, on the back, on the palest of peach backgrounds (almost cream) are two vignettes separated by clipping shears and a cut flower.  These images are paired with the above-noted words in the interior of the book.  The artwork on the left is of Celia chatting with a guest in her garden as other visitors at the hotel are silhouetted behind them.  On the right are a collection of vases in white and black filled with colorful flowers.

On the opening endpapers is an outline, a plan, fifty feet by fifteen feet of a garden.  It is drawn as if we are looking down at the garden.  On the closing endpapers, in a collage of memorabilia and artwork, is a postcard or photograph of Appledore, Isles Of Shoals.

At the first page turn after the opening endpapers on the left are two maps.  One in the left-hand corner shows the position of the Isles of Shoals in relation to New Hampshire and Maine.  The larger map shows the Isles of Shoals.  Vivid strips indicate the two islands where Celia planted gardens.  The islands are labeled and readers can see how some of the islands belong to New Hampshire and others are a part of Maine.  On the title page is a postcard with a seagull filling most of the space.  To the left of the card are a set of watercolors and a paintbrush.

Melissa Sweet rendered these images

in watercolor, gouache, and mixed media.

They are a mix of two-page pictures, single-page pictures and pictures within pictures.  Columns are made within these illustrations.  In the columns are quotations by Celia Thaxter relevant to the narrative.  For every two pages, there is a quote with two exceptions.  Two single pages each have a quote and the following two pages have none.  All of these eloquent visuals bring us deeply into the story, not as observers but as if we were there.

One of my many favorite illustrations is a single-page visual.  On the left side we see a portion of the lighthouse where Celia's father initially worked on White Island.  The windows are glowing.  It is so cold outside that Celia and her brothers breathe on pennies and place them on the frozen windows so they can see outside.  On the right, Melissa Sweet has displayed a dark, angry and icy sea with howling winds.  Embedded in the waves are the words:

The sea is black and white
as death, with horrible long
billows that break and roar

In a word, Celia Planted A Garden: The Story of Celia Thaxter And Her Island Garden written by Phyllis Root and Gary D. Schmidt with artwork by Melissa Sweet, is fascinating, especially when the time in which it took place is considered.  At the close of the book are two pages titled A Note On Celia Laighton Thaxter.  These are followed by two pages of a detailed timeline with forty-seven significant years.  There is an extensive one and one-half page bibliography.  I highly recommend this title for both your professional and personal collections.

To learn more about Phyllis Root and her other work, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  She has an account on Facebook.  You can find out more about Gary D. Schmidt at these two links, his Calvin University page and an article in the university's publication, Spark.  By following the link attached to Melissa Sweet's name, you can access her website.  There you can learn about her work.  She has accounts on Facebook and Instagram.  At the publisher's website, you can download a four-page teacher's guide.  At Penguin Random House, you can view interior images.

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