Garden Inspiration in Kids Books

Newly discovered garden space; day 1 (top) and day 2 (bottom)

Hello! I hope you all had a lovely Easter week. It was very quiet here and I largely ignored everything I should have been doing in favour of a bit of gardening. As I headed to the very back of my small garden to trim away some dead growth, I made a surprising discovery. Those bushes full of brown and brittle branches that I thought were in my patch? Turns out they came from the garden behind me! And once I cleared them away, I discovered a large amount of extra garden space. So…the games begin. This is a very shady space (though I can carefully trim back overhanging greenery to let in more sun…mindful of the wildlife, of course) and will require a bit of negotiation. (First negotiation: the lovely cats who are thinking I am building them a toilet.) And quite a bit of inspiration. It’s never going to be anything other than a cool, green, shady space, so I am going to have to find shade-loving plants and flowers…the goal is a kind of woodland garden. Finding the plants to suit isn’t really a problem. It’s simply the patience and the understanding…as with all gardening.

In seeking inspiration, of course I turn to books…and in turning to books, I (mostly) return to my childhood shelves. It’s not the factual, nonfiction books I am looking for, though there are quite a number of those that are simply marvelous for children and adults. No…not gardening books. What I want is a story. Something to initiate some truly imaginative flights of fancy. And when I looked at my shelves….turns out I don’t have much that would be considered “garden stories”. But what I do have is quite a number of stories that take place in and around gardens; bringing in considerations of the wilder side of things; the wildlife, the way things grow, how things are and what can be brought to it or observed around it and encouraged. Inspiration indeed!

In looking for “garden stories”, the first picture book that popped into my head was The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes (Flying Eye Books, 2015.) This is a beautiful tale of a tiny little gardener whose garden means everything to him. It means food, home and is his joy. He’s not a very good gardener, but he works very, very hard. The trouble is; he’s just too little. The garden gets on top of him and try though he might, working morning, noon and night…it’s just not enough. What he needs is some help. So one night, the little gardener makes a wish….

Since I was seeking garden stories, I turned to Dolores Keveaneys’ picturebooks. All of her picturebooks are full of life and take place in and around the garden and natural world. Her latest, Dee the Bee (Starfish Bay Childrens Books, 2020) visits the garden hero (Dee the Bee) as she flies around from flowers to fruit trees to the veg patch and beyond. It brings an understanding and appreciation of these tiny little titans, without whom most of life and certainly all of the gardens and plants around us just wouldn’t exist. But more than that, it is vivid and detailed in its’ depiction of the plants and flowers, how they live and what they need; a real sense of working in cooperation with nature.

Much the same can be said of The King of Tiny Things by Jeanne Willis and Gwen Millward (Puffin, 2010.) But in a completely different voice. Two little girls go to visit their grandparents and have a wonderful adventure camping out in the back garden. They have a most unexpected visitor…the King of Tiny Things. He shows them all the creepy-crawlies, the bugs, the grubs and all the tiny things that bring magic to the night, the garden and the world in general. This one helps me, as a grown-up, stay mindful of what I am doing in the garden…and truth be told, I prefer my garden to be a bit messy, unkempt and filled with the wildness of tiny things.

Leaving aside the picturebooks and venturing into the world of kids novels, of course I begin with The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I jumped straight into the bit where Mary discovers the secret walled garden at the encouragement of a friendly robin. In truth, much the same can be said of my discovery of this bare, overgrown vacant space in my own garden…so, inspiration! What she discovers is a magical place, but a space that needs the life within carefully encouraged, tended and cared for. (Read closely; there’s a lot of gardening information in there.) In doing so, the garden comes back to vibrant life and changes Mary…or helps her realise her true nature. No longer cross and disagreeable, she emerges resilient, happy and filled with an energy for what could be. Something I certainly need after this last year.

Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker (HarperCollinsChildrensBooks, 2020) may seem an odd choice for a garden-centric book…however, give it some thought. After leaving his grandmothers’ and returning to the city, Ware is forced to attend the dreaded Rec camp for the summer. But on his first day, he meets Jolene; a tough, secretive girl who is planting a garden in the rubble and wreckage of an abandoned church. Ware skips Rec camp altogether and begins to create his fantasy world, a “castle” out of the ruins, while Jolene draws him firmly back to the “Real World” with her own, practical plans. Yes, there is some disillusionment and discouragement. But they triumph and help each other…and keep the garden going even though all seems lost. And THAT speaks to the heart of gardening. Yes, you may fail. But adapt, keep at it. In the end, all will be more than well.

Now…here’s a book that is very close to my heart; Lob by Linda Newbery (Jonathan Cape (PB) 2014.) Lucy spends a lot of her time at her grandparents house in the countryside, helping Grandpa tend his wondrous garden. And for as long as she can remember, she has wanted to catch a glimpse of the mysterious little green man who lives there: Lob. But you have to be very special to see him. Lob is secretive and silent. He is the spirit of green and growing things. Most people believe Lob is just a story that Grandpa Will tells to entertain Lucy. Lucy knows better. But then, a tragedy occurs that shatters Lucys’ world. What will Lob do now? And how will Lucy and Lob ever find each other again? It’s gorgeous…just gorgeous. There is so much about the power of love, belief, growing up, gardens, green spaces and the world around us in this little book intended for 7-10 years olds. It is heart-warming and inspiring. Lobs’ journey after he leaves the cottage-garden takes us across country, down noisy, dirty roads and highways. One bit I particularly love is Lobs’ impression of arriving at the Chelsea Garden Show in London. His astonishment and adaptability at the rapid construction of all these green and growing gardens that spring out of nowhere says something poignant and important about the pace of nature and the patience of the gardener.

“…he knew farming and he new gardening and this wasn’t much like either….farming was slow, and gardening was slow, and slow was the only way it could be. There was a lot of waiting, a lot of sprouting and growing and seeding, all at the proper time. This was all happening at high speed….”

Of course, Lob pitches in and does his bit, making things more natural; because it’s what he does...”their woodland garden looked, almost magically, like real woodland, like a forest you could wander into and get lost…” Magical, indeed!

I could go on and on, but don’t worry. I won’t. Just a bit of advice for all you gardeners out there; or would be gardeners or curious about gardening and nature but need some inspiration. NEVER discount childrens books for gardening. They are simple, clear and packed full of information. And they will create an imaginative, inspirational, soothing space for both children and all the grown-ups in the room. Now, I must get back to the garden. Soil to be turned, plants to be planted, magic to be made…..Happy Gardening to all of you; even if it’s just a pot on the window sill.

4 thoughts on “Garden Inspiration in Kids Books

  1. I loved that story, The secret garden. Living in the desert we don’t get the woodland and gardens like they have in England. When we head up north to the woods I love walking out there seeing all the plants we don’t get here in the city. Then I go home and doodle away nature’s designs. So much fun. I also enjoy creating miniature gardens with little wooden cottages to display in my garden here in the city. Kind of makes it feel like I have a little bit of country cottages from the old country. Can’t wait to read more about your gardening adventures. What ever the outcome, you will not only enjoy the process yourself but the little critters out there will also love what ever you do creating a new world for them to enjoy. Happy gardening adventures.

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