For young children, the traditional division between architecture and the natural landscape is not self-evident. Houseplants may bloom in the dining room, and outdoors spaces often feature shady plastic playscapes with manmade material underfoot. Rather than trying to enforce boundaries between the natural and the manmade, the best children’s books encourage their readers to see continuity between the built environment and the natural world. After all, both places can be sites of creative self-expression, spaces to work and play. Architecture and the natural environment each offer budding designers an opportunity to think in three dimensions. Peter Brown’s The Curious Garden tells the story of an independent young boy who forges harmony between nature and the built environment, transforming his city into a place which is more enjoyable for all.
As The Curious Garden opens, readers see the urban landscape of its protagonist. Young Liam inhabits a gray, industrial city, with no obvious spaces for children to play. Setting out on a solitary walk, Liam climbs up onto an abandoned viaduct, entering a secret world of plants waiting for care. The Curious Garden unfolds as Liam makes subsequent visits to his secret space. Through careful trial and error, Liam hones his gardening skills, and the plants rewards his efforts by blooming and expanding along their path above the city. Soon, the small boy is surrounded by a gorgeous explosion of flowers, and butterflies. After a winter of dormancy, the garden rises in the spring, outpacing Liam and attracting gardeners across the city. The last picture spread shows Liam’s home city transformed. Windmills have replaced smokestacks; adults and children are gardening and playing on rooftops and in the streets. The expanded garden has defused any tension between mankind and the natural world.
Peter Brown acknowledges the creation of Manhattan’s High Line as the starting point for The Curious Garden. Yet the book succeeds as an original narrative while also channeling earlier children’s stories like the nineteenth-century tale of Johnny Appleseed and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Alongside a message about environmentalism, Brown’s tale celebrates children’s autonomy, revealing to young readers the role they might play in shaping the world around them. Liam is delightfully introverted, a boy who leads with the example of quiet perseverance. Liam’s job, like that of the reader, is to find a place he can express himself within the constraints of a world he cannot entirely control. It’s a hefty challenge, but Liam’s commitment to passing along his skills gives readers faith that the next generation is up to the task.
Further Reading: Peter Brown, The Curious Garden (2009); Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (1911); Esme Raji Codell, Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John “Appleseed” Chapman, (2012); David Halle and Elizabeth Tiso, New York’s New Edge: Contemporary Art, The High Line and Urban Megaprojects on the Far West Side (2014).