Friday, June 12, 2015

The Gardener   
by Sarah Stewart
Illustrated by David Small

Awards:  Caldecott Honor and The Christopher Award

My husband is an educator, but in his heart and soul, he is a gardener.  He has had an after school gardening club called “The Green Hornets”  for several years. The ISG Jubail Green Hornets have turned our campus grounds-which are situated in Jubail, Saudi Arabia (in the great Arabian desert) into a beautiful, lush, landscaped area.

He often talks to our faculty that kids today need ‘less screen-time and more dirt-time’.  Together, our mantra is that a maker-space is not just about 3-D printers.  Especially in the 21st century, where an awareness in sustainability is growing, getting kids involved with developing and growing a school garden is a must and should be the #1 maker-space in the school (in our humble opinion).  He truly believes in 'garden-based learning' and does what he can to share the magic of gardening. 

This review is dedicated to my husband and the Jubail Green Hornets.

Book Talk
This story takes place in 1935, during the Great Depression and is told through letters that the protagonist, Lydia Grace, writes to her family.  The fantastic illustrations that depict the Depression-era struggles, also add depth and details to the events mentioned in Lydia Grace's letters.

When the story opens, Lydia Grace is living in a rural community with her parents and Grandmother.  Her father and mother have been out of work for some time.  It is getting difficult for the family to afford rearing Lydia.  Despite the hardships that the Depression brings, Lydia and her Grandmother share a love of gardening and grow a prolific garden full of fresh vegetables and flowers.

The family decides that it would be best to send Lydia Grace to the city to live with Uncle Jim, who has a bakery. She is to assist him in the bakery.  As the family helps her pack, Grandma gives her seed packets to plant when she gets to the city.

Lydia Grace is strong and good natured and has a contagious, positive attitude.  Uncle Jim is a bit of a grump and never smiles. Lydia makes it her goal to get Uncle Jim to smile.  Through her year with him, she learns a lot about baking from him and Ed and Emma, the other workers in the bakery.  She also turns the bakery area into a beautiful floral display by planting flowers in the flower boxes and around the shop. This seems to attract more customers and Uncle Jim almost smiles.

A sample of this story told through letters:
“May 27, 1936
Dear Mama, Papa and Grandma,
You should have heard Emma laugh today when I opened your letter and dirt fell out on the sidewalk! Thank you for all the baby plants. They survived the trip in the big envelope. More about Emma: She’s helping me with the secret place, Hurrah!
Love to all,
Lydia Grace
P.S. I saw Uncle Jim almost smile today. The store was full (well, almost full) of customers.

Her letters to her family communicate how she is doing with her schooling and baking, but are mostly centered around how and where she has grown something new and her enthusiasm for the beauty that her gardening bring.

One day, she discovers the very top of the large apartment building that they live and work in. It is a mess with trash, but Lydia sees its potential as a roof-top garden area.  Together with Emma, they secretly work for several months to develop the roof-top garden. 

By the 4th of July, the roof-top garden is in full, glorious bloom, so the three take Uncle Jim there to surprise him and to celebrate the holiday together.  Uncle Jim nearly smiles.

The last letter in the story informs the reader that Lydia’s father has gotten a job and  Lydia is heading home. Lydia is thrilled although she has grown close to Uncle Jim (despite his grumpiness) and Ed and Emma.   As a celebration of the good news and their time together, Uncle Jim makes a scrumptious cake that they all eat together on the roof top surrounded by the beautiful garden. 

In her last line in her last letter, Lydia has a special note to her Grandma, telling her that Lydia is looking forward to helping Grandma in her garden again. As Lydia writes, “We gardeners never retire.”

The last page has no letter, but a tender illustration of Uncle Jim and Ed and Emma bidding Lydia Grace a tearful and loving goodbye at the train station. 

Suggested Use as a Mentor Text:
Book Genre: Historical Fiction
Reading Workshop strategies: Connecting, Inferring, Fluency, Summarizing
Writing Workshop genre and strategies: Personal narrative (thru letters), Strong Female
Curricular Themes: US History (Great Depression), Science—growing gardens

David Small/Sarah Stewart’s website:

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