The 2005 Caldecott medalist returns with a tale about the joys of solitude
My Garden. By Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 40 pp., $18.99. Ages 3–6.
By Janice Harayda
Kevin Henkes has won deserved praise for Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse and other picture books about a high-spirited mouse and her friends and family. But he also excels at telling quiet stories about the rewards people gain from spending time alone.
Nearly 30 years ago, Henkes made his picture-book debut with All Alone, which offered a boy’s view of things he could do on his own. Henkes returns to the theme of the joys of solitude in a book about a girl whose imagination blooms when she’s alone in the family garden. On the first spread, Henkes’s unnamed heroine helps her mother weed and water and “chase away the rabbits / so that they don’t eat all the lettuce” in their fenced-in garden. Then, until the last spread, the girl is alone on the page, and her imagination soars as she considers what life would be like “if I had a garden …”
Like a well-structured poem, My Garden links its young heroine’s fantasies with a refrain, “In my garden”: “In my garden, the flowers could change color / just by my thinking about it — / pink, blue, green, purple. Even patterns.” “In my garden, the rabbits wouldn’t eat the lettuce / because the rabbits would be chocolate / and I would eat them.” These lines reflect perfectly the thinking of children of a certain age – at once literal and wildly fanciful – and the illustrations are nearly as good. Henkes works in pen-and-ink and watercolor and doesn’t tart up his pictures with glitter, but when his heroine imagines strawberries that “glow like lanterns,” the fruit seems lit from within. And his palette — which runs to colors like pink and lilac and moss green — is soft-focused without being insipid.
Henkes’s pictures lack the depth and stylistic flair of the work of the best living picture-book illustrators, a group that includes Chris Van Allsburg, Maurice Sendak and Quentin Blake. But his words and pictures are so well integrated that My Garden works better than many books by greater artists who have written weak texts or were mismatched with authors who did. His heroine’s mother returns at just the right moment with her hands outstretched to show that people need both time alone and time with others. And if My Garden lacks the high comedy of the books about Lilly, its heroine has sly wit of her own. “What are you doing?” her mother asks on the last page. “Oh, nothing,” her daughter deadpans. “Just working in the garden.”
Best line/picture: “If I planted jelly beans, / I’d grow a great big jelly bean bush.” And there’s a nice echo of the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary” in: “If I planted seashells, / I’d grow seashells.” The plaid sunflowers are also amusing, and the book has striking endpapers.
Worst line/picture: A hard-liner might argue that Henkes should have killed the italics and used stronger words in “I would eat them” and another line.
Published: February 2010
2011 Caldecott Medal scouting report: My Garden is less original than some books likely to receive serious consideration for the American Library Association’s award, such as Here Comes the Garbage Barge!. But it’s a safe choice, unlikely to cause trouble for any library that acquires it. Henkes won the 2005 Caldecott medal and an earlier Honor Book citation, and the ALA has a tradition of honoring the same authors repeatedly. No one should be surprised if this book wins.
© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.