Peter Brown's The Curious Garden is a delight from start to finish. It's a relatively long picture book (at 40 pages), perfect for the early elementary school crowd. Adults will, I think, enjoy it, too.
The Curious Garden is about a boy named Liam who lives in a bleak, colorless city. When his curiosity leads him to find a tiny bit of garden on an abandoned railroad track, a magical journey begins for the boy, the garden, and the city. An author's note explains that the idea for The Curious Garden came from actual garden on a disused railway in Manhattan. The author's curiosity about "what would happen if an entire city decided to truly cooperate with nature?" took the story from there. It's like a reverse Dystopia (which I don't think is quite the same thing as a Utopia).
The Curious Garden is lavishly illustrated (acrylic and gouache on board), with the colors becoming brighter and brighter, and the city's edges becoming softer and softer, as the story progresses. The people in the pictures, even Liam, are secondary to the garden. Brown displays a clear affection for nature, as well as a sense of whimsy. My favorite page spread is one where "A few plants popped up where they didn't belong. Others mysteriously popped up all at once." We see Liam, in an overcoat and dark glasses, stealthily sliding a ready-made garden onto the sidewalk. Pure fun!
The Curious Garden won the 2010 E.B. White Read-Aloud Award for Picture Books, and I think that it was an excellent choice (how does the Association of Booksellers for Children get it right, year after year?). It's the sort of book that one wants to read aloud, with passages like:
"It was on one such morning that Liam made several surprising discoveries. He was wandering around the old railway, as he did from time to time, when he stumbled upon a dark stairwell leading up to the tracks.
The railway has stopped working ages ago.
And since Liam had always wanted to explore the tracks, there was only one thing for the curious boy to do."
There's no word-play. It's straight-up narrative text, written with a relatively advanced vocabulary, but the innate suspense of the story propels the reader forward. What will the curious boy find? Who wouldn't want to check out a dark stairwell, on a rainy day?
I like Liam a lot. He's quietly, cheerfully determined. When the snow comes, "Rather than waste his winter worrying about the garden, Liam spent it preparing for spring." (We see him reading books and collecting gardening tools). Executed differently, The Curious Garden could have come across as preachy. But it doesn't at all - it comes across as joyful and genuine.
The Curious Garden has my highest recommendation. Parents should beware, though. It's likely to make kids want to start a garden. (Oh, how my next-door-neighbor growing up would have enjoyed this one). As for me, I'll be looking for Peter Brown's other books (like Children Make Terrible Pets).
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@lbschool)
Publication Date: April 1, 2009
Source of Book: A gift for Baby Bookworm from her cousins in New York
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).