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Love the message...but
on July 1, 2009
The Curious Garden is one of the books that appears on many "mock Caldecott" short lists. The Caldecott Medal is an award given to the best children's picture book published the preceeding year. The Curious Garden will be eligible for the 2010 Caldecott.
I love the message of the book--that things that are worn-out and ugly can become beautiful when people care enough to put work into them, like Liam, the star of this story, cares about turning old elevated railroad tracks into gardens. Cities are full of possibilities for re-purposing and renewing places that are no longer functioning. As an urban park planner for 20 years in many industrial towns, there is no shortage of places and no limit to the possibilities, as long as people are willing to dream and make their dreams realities. I think it would be good for our nation for us to become a nation of visionaries and goal-oriented workers again! The book is inspiring, and I hardly ever say that about a book or any other form of media.
The drawback for me is the illustrations. They fail to live up to the inspiring message of the text. The dull tones, the overly-subtle changes between the "before" and "after" images, the utter stiffness of the people (can Liam even bend his elbows and knees?)overwhelms the hope-filled theme.
The illustrations seem to just show continued urban decay sometimes. The buidlings still look rusty and dirty with broken windows, the only change is that no one controls the inevitable weeds that grow out of every crack and crevice. Growing plants on tumbledown buildings does not renew a city or inspire others to "go green." If anything, the city looks less cared-for and more out of control.
It's been my experience that when someone actually cares about their old urban neighborhood, whether with a new park, a beautiful garden, repainted houses or whatever, others catch the improvment bug and start to fix up their places, too. They see how dingy their own place looks compared to what it can be. Attitudes change and people are inspired to create order and beauty for its own sake. But in this book, the only thing that seems to change is that there are more plants around. It would have been nice for the illustrations to show people painting, fixing, loving their city.
It's probably just the style of artwork that makes the illustrations seem dull. The large patches of muted and paled colors don't spread cheer, inspiration, activity or hope like they could.
Unfortunately, because of that, it becomes another boring children's book with a message, instead of an inspiring look at possibilities and love.