Longing for Spring and for Renewal – book reviews

Grandpa’s Garden by Stella Fry, illustrated by Sheila Moxley, Barefoot Books, 2012

The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin, Charlesbridge, 1999, anniversary ed. 2009

The Seed/Vidhai by Deepa Balsavar, Tamil by Karkuzhali, Tulika, 2005

My daughter and I watched the snow again yesterday, on our fifth? sixth? snow day since the start of February. She said to me, Mummy, the snow looks like magic falling from the sky. And it does. It’s pretty. My Singapore-bred husband has been sledging or sledding as they say here, for the first time – first time ever – this month. I quite like digging snow, especially in the evening, as the light fades, and there’s a little community of us, digging quietly, pausing for breath. The snow thrown from the road is heavy. I appreciate the stillness, and the twisting exercise of shovelling.

But the winter also feels like the unfunny punchline of the year. It’s well over a year since my kids saw any of their grandparents – the penalty of living on different continents in a pandemic. So I’ve been buying seeds, and reading.

The narrator of Grace Lin’s The Ugly Vegetables helps her mother in the garden, wondering about and doubting the Chinese vegetables that her mother is planting when all the neighbours are growing flowers – until she smells the soup her mother makes from them, and everyone wants to grow and eat them too. It’s a practical, heartfelt book, giving us a window into the community – my daughter likes to identify all the children in the background – and introducing a range of vegetables with their Chinese names. I admire the mother’s confidence, her calm certainty that she can produce something delicious from the ground. I hope my vegetables grow, hope they taste good too.

The Seed is a beautifully simple dual-language book in English and Tamil (see more, Pogalam vaanga!). A girl finds a seed and plants it, taking it to her family wondering what it will grow into. It’s a little book with great depth – acceptance and unconditional love – the text clear and uncluttered, the illustrations full of whimsy and character.

My own grandfather was a gardener by profession though I never knew him. My father likes to grow rhubarb. And I remember these things as I read Grandpa’s Garden, a journey though the seasons of gardening with a boy and his grandfather. We hadn’t read this for a while, but I dug it off the shelves recently. The words are lyrical and soothing, poetic in places. Billy’s cry to his Grandpa feels especially poignant, ‘It’s no use,… Everything’s dead!’ I quote Grandpa’s response to the kids time after time – his reassurance reassuring me – ‘It’s only sleeping’. Spring will come for us, as it does for Grandpa and Billy and their garden. There’s horticulture and environmental wisdom woven into this book; the compost heap, the planting methods, the helpful animals and bugs protecting the garden. We’re going to do this, I promise the kids, the snow will melt and we will plant seeds too. We identify with Billy: it’s hard to wait!

In these books, the garden is a place to share, to work together, a place for family. The younger generation turns to the older with questions and doubts. I hope I can answer those when they’re brought to me. Spring will come, I tell the kids. The cycles of the year will turn. My heart aches, it’s so long since we’ve held the ones we love. But ‘spring will follow… And I can’t wait!’

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