This picture book tells the story of Theo and her grandfather, who have always loved gardening together. When Poppa’s move to an apartment forces change, they find a creative and colourful way to transform his new balcony into an imaginary garden. When Poppa has to be away for a while, he leaves Theo in charge. She not only tends the garden, but adds a thoughtful surprise.
Things I love about this book:
I love the close relationship between Theo and her grandfather. I love that they take pleasure in facing the challenge of the missing garden. I love the touches of humour, like when Poppa buys them new gardening hats to wear as they work on painting their imaginary garden. Or when Poppa announces spring’s arrival by painting a robin, which Theo promptly feeds by painting a worm.
I love that Theo is empowered by her grandfather’s trust in her ability to both tend the garden according to plan, and to listen to her own heart and discern what needs done. I love that, in this age of instant gratification, their project takes time to complete, and I love Irene Luxbacher’s illustrations, which capture the feel of the story so well. And I also love the way gentle everyday teaching is completely integral to the story. (NOT cleverly hidden, just naturally there.)
For example, when Theo and her grandfather begin to paint they start with the garden’s back wall, because “the vines will need to hold onto something as they reach for the sun.” Later Poppa teaches Theo to mix black and white paint to make gray for the bricks. Similarly he describes how to make brown for the soil. BUT the story does not suddenly get dropped or side-lined in favour of a plant physiology class or colour blending lesson with example after example. Ideas are introduced only to the extent they are part of the story.
In a similar way, we learn a bit about what order spring flowers appear in, and what colours and shapes they are. When the spring robin “appears” it is revealed step by step as Poppa uses simple shapes and brush strokes to create it. A slightly older child might like to try following those steps to make their own robin.
In that way I think this book is especially wonderful for reading when there are slightly older and younger children listening at the same time. A younger child could follow the story, while an older one might find lots to think about besides just the story itself. The book would also lend itself as an introduction to a variety of activities (painting, planting seeds, going for a walk to look for and name spring flowers, learning about bird migration etc.)
Is The Imaginary Garden perfect? Of course not. That’s another one of the things I love about it.
Reviewed by Susan Jean
(review copy from personal library).