There are so many great picture books for children this Christmas season that it’s almost impossible to write about them all. But there are a few standouts that demand particular attention, and we will try to bring them top-of-mind this week. (The number of excellent prose novels recently released for Young Adult readers is equally impressive, and we will tell you about some of those before the New Year rings in, we promise!)
One of the most original and delightful books to cross our desk this season is The Night Gardener, by Terry Fan and Eric Fan. These extremely talented brothers are Ontario-based writers and illustrators, and The Night Gardener is their best book to date.
The story tells of life on Grimloch Lane. Life continues apace, without much interesting seeming to happen. Young William notices, though, a mysterious gardener steal by one night, a gardener who transforms an ordinary tree into a magnificent topiary sculpture of an owl. The neighborhood falls agape with wonder … and the mysterious gardener continues to ply his trade, leaving these amazing wood-and-leaf sculptures in his wake.
William, of course, promises to stay up one night and catch him in the act…
There is so much going on in The Night Gardener that adults will delight in unpacking the story as much as children. The evocative illustrations for this book were rendered in graphite, and then digitally colored. Fortunately, the Fan Brothers exercised as much restraint in the coloration process as they did with their drawings.
Grimloch Lane in the early pages of the book is a fairly gray, monochromatic place. As the Night Gardener creates more and more topiary art, the pages slowly and subtly infuse with color, reaching a full, rich coloration at the end. But this is never used to cheap effect; indeed, illustrations that take place in moonlight are just as mysterious and creamy as they are subdued.
The drawings themselves have a great deal of charm; they are mindful, in their way, of the pen-and-ink work of Edward Gorey (1925-2000). But where Gorey was macabre and mordant, the Fan Brothers are more mysterious and insinuating. The brothers have a happy knack of composition, and the drawings are filled with witty details that catch the eye.
Any attentive reader paging through the book will, again and again, return to the word ‘subtle.’ We are told very little about William, but there is a picture of his parents on his windowsill. We never learn anything about them, and it was not until my second page-through that I noticed that the building he leaves at one point is an orphanage. And our gardener seems to sculpt his animals based on whatever animals happen to be in the neighborhood. And who are the mustached, hat-wearing twins in nearly every group drawing? Could it be the Fan Brothers, themselves?
But just as interesting as the illustrations are, the story is even more compelling. Are the Fan Brothers offering a parable on the affect that art has upon us, or a story of transferring intergenerational expertise? Is it about the soul-crushing effects of ugly neighborhoods and urban blight, or about the restorative effects of engaging in the arts? Is it a meditation on seasonal changes, or a commentary on created families?
This is a book with no easy answers, but many earned pleasures. The Night Gardener is sure to intrigue both children and adults with its subtle drawings, evocative narrative, and hidden clues. A gem!