Tag Archives: topiary

Day 98 – The Night Gardener

Looking back over the first several months of our Storybook Year, one of the things that has impressed me the most is just how many really great new picture books we have found since we began. Honestly, when we started the year, we thought we were going to be struggling a bit to fill every day once we exhausted our existing collection. Now our house is practically drowning in library books, fantastic new books arrive every day in the mail, and I have a feeling that we are going to need to overhaul our favorites list soon.

night owlI said all that so I could tell you this story about today’s book: “The Night Gardener” by Eric and Terry Fan. This is another brand new picture book, just released in February this year. Intrigued by the cover illustration, we checked the book out from the library and our youngest wanted to read it over and over again. When it was finally time to return the book, our youngest sobbed and sobbed in the middle of the library lobby and continued carrying on all the way out to the car: “You left my owl book in there!” As you might imagine, we now have our own copy purchased from the bookstore that same afternoon.

“The Night Gardener” is an auspicious debut for the Fan Brothers. It is a book full of stunning and intricate illustrations, and it tells a sweet story about an orphan named William and the people of a dreary little town whose lives are about to be forever changed by an old man with a ladder, some gardening sheers, and a knack for turning trees into works of art.

William is sitting on a log absent-mindedly doodling an owl in the dirt when the old man arrives on a drab and quiet Grimloch Lane. Things are hardly quiet the next morning, however, when William is awoken by a commotion below the window of his room at the orphanage; the tree in the yard outside has been transformed into a wise owl. Suddenly, spectacular topiaries begin appearing all around the neighborhood – a brand new one each morning. At first, people mostly point and gawk at the Night Gardener’s creations, but with each new topiary, you can see that the neighborhood is steadily becoming more colorful and more full of life. When a magnificent fire-breathing dragon appears one morning, it sparks an explosion of activity – children climbing, swinging, running, and flying kites, surrounded by a crowd of young and old alike enjoying the festivities well past sunset.cat

That same evening, William spies an old man with a ladder wandering down the street. Could this be the Night Gardener? William follows him to the gates of Grimloch Park, where the old man turns to William and says, “There are so many trees in this park, I could use your help.” The Night Gardener and his “apprentice” work deep into the night, and when they are finished the old man lays a sleeping William at the base of their final tree. William opens his eyes in the morning to a vibrant and bustling park filled with people…there to admire the most amazing collection of topiares yet! And at William’s feet there is a pair of hedge trimmers – a gift from the Night Gardener.

Over time, the leaves change and fall off the amazing arboreal artwork until there is no longer any sign of the Night Gardener’s handiwork, but the impact of his visit endures. The experience has changed the lives of everyone on Grimloch Lane forever – including William, who has clearly started honing his own night gardening skills.

“The Night Gardener” is a charming and inspiring story. The text is simple but effective, and the illustrations are exquisite. The large format of the hardcover edition makes for some impressive two-page spreads, and it facilitates exploration of the many details you might miss on the first pass – like the little white rabbit which we were so excited to find sitting quietly under the friendly bunny topiary, or the fact that the old man spots William doodling an owl as he walks by…potentially the inspiration for the wise owl topiary which adorns the cover? This is exactly the kind of book that children – and adults – will pick up to peruse time and time again.

I also suggest taking a glance at the comments and the draft illustrations from the authors themselves on the Amazon.com page. I thought it was interesting to read that the brothers Fan originally imagined Grimloch Lane’s architecture as Victorian but eventually opted for something less period-specific. Apparently, they also had initially prepared an illustration for the cover which showed the night gardener at work. However, they switched that picture out for one of William admiring the wise owl after being persuaded that the story was really about William. These insights provide another reminder of how much thought and hard work goes into the creation of an individual picture book – especially a really great one.