Girls & Gardening in Picture Books

Every once in a while I notice recurring themes in kids’ books and they pique my interest.   What makes a plot surface in different books by different authors in different decades?   What does the repeated plot say about the culture that repeats it?  Take, for example, these three stories about girls and gardening.

Miss Rumphius is about a woman who travels around the world but comes home to do what her grandfather taught her, “to make the world more beautiful.”   In the end, she decides that she will buy bushels of lupine seeds and spread them around her town, transforming it into a bloom-filled landscape bathed in colour.  Miss Rumphius is often cited as a classic children’s book; it was published in 1982 and it won an American Book Award.  It’s still in print, and Scholastic has included it in its DVD collection, so clearly, it’s had traction in our culture for many years.

The Gardener, by Sarah Stewart with pictures by David Small, was published in 1997, and it won a Caldecott Honor.  It takes place in 1935; the Great Depression forces parents to send their daughter to live with her uncle and help in his city bakery so that they can try and find work.  The uncle is a crusty old fellow, so Lydia uses her gift for gardening to bring life to the barren urban block where they live.  She transforms the entire building — especially the roof, the sight of which humanizes her uncle enough that he can finally show Lydia a bit of affection.

In Rose’s Garden by Peter H. Reynolds, published in 2009, it feels like the main character is responsible for humanity itself.  Rose explores the world, floating over seas in her “fantastic teapot,” collecting seeds by which to remember her travels.  A likely story!  I suspect that Rose is no fool — she’s heard all about the environmental crises crippling the planet and she’s on a mission to preserve biodiversity.  Anyway:  Rose’s teapot gets full so she finds a port and disembarks to explore a grey, crowded city.  Aha!  She finds a bare, neglected plot of earth in the middle of the urban jungle!  But Rose’s seeds don’t grow until a veritable United Nations of children bring paper flowers to plant there first.  Each child brings one flower and one story about immigrating to the city from other parts of the world.  So, not only is Rose greening the city, she’s creating a kind of metaphor for multiculturalism.  Phew.  That’s a lot of work.  She moves her teapot into the garden and lives there, cheerfully watering the flowers and keeping things going so the other children can come to paint and read and rake things.

Of all three books, it’s The Gardener I like best.  It’s told through Lydia’s letters to her uncle, grandmother, mother and father, and it’s a fine way to introduce kids to an important event in our history — the Depression.  The pictures are hearfelt and touching, but with dashes of humour.  There are plenty of details to pore over, and David Small’s style is accomplished, evocative, and engaging.

I’m slightly uncomfortable with how these three books all reinforce the stereotype of the female as nurturer, going about beautifying the world and caring for their communities — and these three books aren’t even the extent of the paradigm (Butterfly Park is one recent addition).  Or perhaps I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I don’t know of any similar narratives ascribed to boys.