I have just recently posted a review of David Small’s book, Imogene’s Antlers for Perfect Picture Book Friday. I am happy to feature another ‘Small’ book, this time written by Sarah Stewart and pictures by David Small yet again for our bimonthly theme on Girl Power and Women’s Wiles.

Letters from Lydia Grace: Missives from Far and Away. The story is set in August 1935 – right at the heart of the Depression Era in the United States. It was written in an epistolary format where one can get a glimpse of our green-thumbed, golden-hearted girl-protagonist, Lydia Grace’s story through the letters that she writes to her family back home. It reminded me a little bit of our very own bimonthly theme Message in a Bottle a year ago when we explored books written in this format.

Mary's lovely and inspired poster for January-February 2011: Message in a Bottle special.

The story opens to a forlorn Lydia Grace packing her bags with her equally-sad Grandma, an unsent letter to Uncle Jim on her desk. Lydia Grace is about to take on a long journey to an uncle whom she scarcely knows and remembers – since money is tight back home: Did she tell you that Papa has been out of work for a long time, and no one asks Mama to make dresses anymore? 

David Small's artwork shares a visual narrative in and of itself. Breathtaking in its illumination of the words found on the pages.

This is not an uncommon occurrence among family members during this period when money is unbelievably tight and people have to do what they could in order to survive. And so with gardens in her dreams and a pocketful of seeds and sunshine on her face, Lydia Grace takes a trip into the unknown. She does not know a thing about baking (her uncle’s business), but she has quick hands, a steady feet, and spring in her heart.

One of the illustrations from the book that has just bowled me over. So beautiful. And so layered with meaning.

The Unsmiling Uncle Jim and Gardens of Joy that Spilleth Over. Given the context of the times (Depression Era), the reader is able to sense Uncle Jim’s heaviness of heart in his perennially furrowed brows, unsmiling countenance, and slumped shoulders. Yet our simple, hardworking, and kind-hearted Lydia Grace writes long poetry, putters in the corners, and plants seeds of joy around the house in the hope of bringing a smile to Uncle’s face. She waits avidly for letters from back home packed with dirt from baby plants and seeds of reds and yellows soon to bloom and grow. Lydia Grace has also found a ‘secret place’ where she hopes to finally bring a smile to her Uncle’s face. For months, she worked on this drab, gray-colored, uninviting, abandoned area. How she transforms this place into colorful blooms that curl around life’s hard edges, I shall leave for you to discover.

Lydia Grace's secret place.

Teacher Resources. This book is filled with multi-layered metaphors that teachers can explore and build upon. Rather than being unduly depressed with the fact that she is away from home, Lydia Grace faced this trying period in her life with flowers in her eyes, quick hands that dig into the earth giving room for seeds to grow, and a spirit that soars into gardens of kindness and truths.

I was able to find a few resources that teachers can make use of in the event that they wish to use this in their classroom. This one is a downloadable powerpoint file by tchandler.wikispaces that is an entire lesson plan in and of itself built around the book. This is a downloadable pdf link created by Mary Abbott which includes a detailed list of teacher activities, list of questions, printable worksheets and activities that teachers can easily reproduce and use in their classroom (how awesome). Here is another Literature Guide created by Learning to Give.org which details activities that teachers can explore before, during, and after reading the book. There is also a set of activities listed for teachers to enjoy. Truly a book that deserves to be planted firmly in your bookshelves, to be opened from time to time – bringing radiance and light to your dark days.

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and pictures by David Small. Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1997. Book borrowed from the NIE Library. Book photos taken by me.

American Library Association Notable Children’s Books, Caldecott Honor Book, IRA Teachers’ Choices, New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Books of the Year, Christopher Awards – Winner, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon Award, Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Books of the Year, School Library Journal Best Books of the Year.

AWB Reading Challenge Update: 45 (35)

PictureBook Challenge Update: 54 of 120

Caldecott Challenge Update: 8 of 24

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

10 comments on “Blooms Around Life’s Edges: The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and Pictures by David Small

  1. Joanna

    Myra, what a delightful review of a early beloved picture book of mine. David Small’s use of light and shadow is breathtaking, and this story fills my heart with flowers!


  2. Myra, really enjoyed your thoroug review of this lovely picture book. I bought the book tfor myself. Such beautiful artwork and a wonderful story. I love David Small and enjoyed hearing him speak at the SCBWI conference. Very entertaining.


    • Hi Pat, I’m glad that you have your own copy of this book. It’s great to re-read this often, warms the heart.


  3. I will look for this, too, Myra. It’s just gorgeous & I like the story that you told about it, putting it into its “place” that’s interesting from little Lydia Grace’s perspective & positive approach to her life’s changes. Thank you!


    • Hi Linda, this is a beautiful book. Lydia Grace is an amazingly-resilient girl. It’s the kind of book that would dig its roots deep in one’s heart.


  4. Pingback: List of Girl Power Themed Books and Poems: Picture Books, YA, Adult Lit, and Poetry «

  5. Mireya F.

    I just love it! Beautiful… it made me retake my garden… I´d just love to see it grow like Lydia´s


  6. Pingback: [Monday Reading] Precious and Playful Princesses |

  7. Pingback: The Gardener – EDUC 5455 Books On Multicultural Families

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