The beauty of picture book is that not only do you have a great story in your hands you also have a work of art. Sometimes the art outshines the story while other times the pictures dwell in the shadows of an outstanding narrative. The trick to long-lasting picture books that become permanent parts of collections is finding a balance between their two sides, art and narration. The Fan Brothers’ The Night Gardner finds that balance, beautiful serene art with a touching story about the power one person can have in changing a sometimes dreary world.
First, you can’t treat this book the way you may have other picture books. The entire book, from the dust jacket to the end pages to the title page, has to be viewed slowly and deliberately. Details hide in the pictures, adding nuance and depth to the story. You will have to read the book several times, and that’s a good thing! Each time you read it and savor the art you will find something new to warm your heart.
The opening pencil and ink drawings lack color, the artist choosing sepia to give the pictures an aged, antique quality. The townsfolk have their heads turned away with only a couple of frowning faces visible. This town and its people have seen better days. Next, we see a little boy, William, sitting in the dirt drawing an owl with a stick. He does not speak, and it’s easy to miss him sitting there the first time you see the page.
Along comes an old man with a ladder and various gardening tools. He alone has slight smile on his face that is reminiscent of the Mona Lisa, as if to say, “I know something!” At first no one pays him any mind. But once night falls, the magic begins.
The following morning William peeks his head out the window of his orphanage (I bet you missed that detail! Look carefully at all the entire page as you read) and finds the tree at the front of the building has been turned into a giant owl topiary. We now see color that wasn’t there before. The townsfolk gather to see this marvelous creation. For the first time we see looks of wonderful and inquisitiveness in the faces of the people. Never have they seen anything like this before. Yet the magic has only just begun. With each passing night new topiaries appear throughout the town.
The topiaries become the focal point of the town, a catalyst that brings people together to talk and laugh, to wonder and guffaw. We see families gathering in the park, hear children laughing from the tree branches, taste the ice cream from the cart along the city street. The world suddenly comes to life, not just for the townsfolk but for the reader as well.
A town snow springs to life. The world bursts forth in color and activity. The people smile, children play, and life moves on even though the Night Gardner has moved on. The little town and it’s people are changed for the better. William, through a simple act of kindness, finds his life has changed as well. He now has a purpose and a vision. His life is filled with meaning that was missing before.
Not only is this book physically stunning, the story is a winner. One person can truly change the world. A seemingly small act can redirect a person’s course in life. When life has us down and we can’t see the beauty in the world around us, it takes is a visionary to show us the potential in all of us. One person, one act of service can change the world.
AR Lvl 2.7, 0.5 points
Reading Counts Lvl 3.3, 1.0 points
The Night Gardener makes for an excellent read aloud! Kids will relish the pictures with each little detail a feast for the eyes. The narration is quite short but not because of lack of quality. Truly good writing is the economy of words, saying the most with the fewest words. I recommend this book for all grades as a read aloud to show children how one person can change the world. The Night Gardener was a visionary the same way modern luminaries like Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and Walt Disney were. His contribution changed his world not just for today but forever. Highest recommendation!