Review: The Forever Garden

April showers have finally given way to May flowers; and like food and friendship and other good things, flowers are meant to be shared. Discover the lifegiving legacy that a simple garden can bestow with The Forever Garden, written by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Samantha Cotterill.

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A cheerful, eccentric lady named Honey is devoted to her garden, and tends it in all weathers. The girl next door does not always see what Honey sees in the garden, but she likes to visit and work alongside her neighbor and friend. Honey shares the garden’s bounty with the girl and her mother: fresh veggies, eggs, and “bouquets of funny things.” They enjoy meals and warm evenings together, until Honey suddenly puts her house up for sale.

Heartbroken, Honey’s young friend does not understand how she can leave her garden, and wonders why she continues to plant berries that she will not be there to harvest. Honey reminds her that a garden belongs to no single person, but that as each gardener enjoys the fruits that were planted by others, so the seeds each person plants are for others to enjoy in later seasons. When a new family moves into Honey’s old home, they find a new friend next door, ready to help them with the garden.

Based loosely on a tale from the Talmud, this charming modern story calls attention not only to the physical and emotional sustenance that a garden gives, but to the relationships that it nurtures as well. Neighborliness is sometimes hard to come by in the age of air-conditioning, supermarkets, and social media; but Honey proves how valuable one kindly example can be. She lavishes attention on her tidy little plantings, but also on the lonely little girl next to her. She teaches her about gardening and about life, about humble self-sufficiency and reaching out to others. Her story is a celebration of hard work and homegrown abundance, of simple joys and time well spent, of appreciation for the past and hope for the future, and of friendship across fences and generations.

The Forever Garden is beautifully told. Readers will recognize the sights, sounds, and tastes in the garden; and also the feelings that go with losing and making friends. The pictures are colorful and sweet, bringing the wisdom of this ancient tale to our own neighborhoods. It would be particularly special for a child under the age of ten to read this with a grandparent, neighbor, or friend.

Such seeds, once planted, will surely prosper.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Whose Garden Is It? written by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by Jane Dyer (This title is sadly out of print, but is well worth requesting from your local library.)

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Series Review: Brambly Hedge

Spring is finally beginning to chase away the last chill days of winter, and little imaginations are ripe for exploring stories that satisfy their curiosity about the natural world. To a child the outdoors ought to be a second home; and no place could feel more like home than the world of Brambly Hedge, created by Jill Barklem.

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This classic collection of stories introduces readers to the mice who inhabit cozy Brambly Hedge. The community they have built among the trees and bushes is comfortable and friendly, with warmly detailed illustrations elaborating Barklem’s delightful tales. Through different seasons of the year and celebrations of life, the mice come together with a cheerful hospitality that spans the generations.

The stories follow no single character, but we become acquainted with Miss Poppy Eyebright, Lady Daisy, kindly Mr. Apple, incorrigible young Wilfred, and others as they go about their daily business in the hedge alongside a quiet stream. We are invited into homes with names like Crabapple Cottage and Old Oak Palace, and then into the tunnels and mills where the mice busily and cleverly attend to all their needs. Barklem’s illustrations portray snug dwellings and various means of gathering and storing food, which is of course the primary occupation of everyone in Brambly Hedge. And such food! If mice do enjoy such delicacies as honey creams and sugared violets, I should surely wish to be one.

The pleasant bustle of everyday life is punctuated by the most splendid gatherings as the mice celebrate birthdays, weddings, christenings, balls, and picnics. They have no dread of the passing of time, but mark it with traditions rooted in natural reverence and generosity. Although they address no deity in particular, the mice give thanks, pronounce blessings, and promise to love their spouses for ever and ever with verses that will sound very familiar to the Christian ear; while the affection shared between neighbors and across generations reminds us of the strength of tribal cultures which respect the wisdom of age and show a common concern for raising the young. Even from the first glance these parties are charming spectacles, evoking all that is best about family and society.

Barklem’s attention to detail is striking in every story. She correctly represents every flower, every leaf, every color and plant in its proper season. (When Poppy marries Dusty on Midsummer’s Day, she notes that the primroses are over.) Her additional whimsies: lace pinafores and meadowsweet tea, the workings of the butter mill and the salt pans, are a pure delight. The tales are well-composed and sweet, perfect for reading with someone little on your lap.

The stories are available in several different formats; they can be purchased as individual volumes, assorted boxed sets, and as a single treasury. As the plots do not necessarily build on one another, they can be collected in any order. The separate volumes are small, like the classic Beatrix Potter books, and would be pleasant to give to a little one over a period of time. The boxed sets are available in several different arrangements, containing all of the books or just a few organized by season or theme. The single-volume treasury is the best value; it contains the complete collection, but the book is not too heavy or unwieldy to open over and over again. Its larger storybook style is easy to read and is a particular favorite with my under-seven crowd, who inevitably beg for just one more.

I hope your family finds a home together in Brambly Hedge; I know you will always be welcome there.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Foxwood Treasury by Cynthia and Brian Paterson

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Review: Uncle Jed’s Barbershop

Sometimes a well-done children’s story is the best way to introduce complex and difficult issues, even reminding adults what is really at the heart of the matter. The loving tale of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, written by Margaree King Mitchell and illustrated by James Ransome, is one of these.

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The story is told by Sarah Jean – great-niece of sweet Uncle Jed – in a readable storytelling style. Growing up in the American South just before the Great Depression, her Uncle Jed was the only black barber in the county – and by extension, the only barber who would cut a black man’s hair. He traveled to his patrons on horseback, accepting what payment his neighbors could offer. Little Sarah Jean loved his visits. Uncle Jed would tell her all about the beautiful barbershop he was saving up to open one day. Nobody ever thought he would, because times were hard and a black man was at a disadvantage to say the least. But Sarah Jean dreamed right along with him.

Then little Sarah Jean fell desperately sick, and doctors would only perform the necessary operation to save her if the family paid cash up front. Only one person in the family had that kind of money, and he didn’t hesitate to give it. Jed lost his life savings a second time when the Great Depression hit, but no matter what obstacles rose between him and his goals he kept on dreaming, and he taught a wide-eyed little girl to do the same.

Uncle Jed’s kind smile comes to life in both the text and the gorgeous paintings of this winsome book. The difficulties of segregation and racial injustice are not minimized or sugarcoated, but are treated gently and respectfully. Some details should be discussed with children upon reading it, such as the separate waiting rooms at the hospital and why the doctors treated white patients first. But the story is not dominated by these very real hardships; like Uncle Jed, it rises above them. The most remarkable feature of this book is the character of Uncle Jed; a man who faced oppression and injustice with hard work, dignity, kindness, hope, and a generous love of his family and community.

I’ll leave it to you to find out whether Uncle Jed ever opens that fancy barber shop, but I will tell you the ending warms the heart. The challenging themes of inequality represented in the book will be more easily explained to children age five and up, but the overwhelming message of goodness is perfect for all ages.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco

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