The Little Gardener: A Tender Illustrated Parable of Purpose and the Power of Working with Love
A sweet celebration of all that is alive and wonderful, inside us and in the outside world we shape together.
By Maria Popova
When I was a child in Bulgaria, my mother came up with a fictional character named Nokkut — Bulgarian for “thumbnail,” for he was a tiny, thumb-sized boy. Every night before bed, she told me fanciful tales of his adventures.
As young working parents struggling to make ends meet, my parents benefited from the great luxury of Europe’s highly efficient system of free childcare: grandparents. Every spring, I was handed off to my grandparents in the countryside. They had an orchard and a large garden full of flowers and strawberries and all kinds of vegetables. I loved the garden with all my heart — I loved digging into the moist dirt with my bare hands, I loved biting into an heirloom tomato fresh off the vine, I loved helping my grandmother plant the pumpkins, I loved waking up early to tend to the gerber daisies with my elephant-shaped watering jug.
Although I did not yet have the words to name the awareness, those were my first brushes with gardening as a spiritual experience — a sacred communion with the earth, a meditative activity with a special kind of prayerfulness to it.
Back in the city during the school year, and especially during the cold winter months, I missed my grandmother’s garden terribly. To alleviate my wistfulness, my mother would tell me stories of Nokkut and his garden. Eventually, she even sewed a miniature rag-doll version of him, clad in a brown corduroy jumpsuit — made of my father’s old trousers — and a tiny gardener’s hat.
Imagine my delight when, many years later, I came upon The Little Gardener (public library) by Hawaiian-born, British-based illustrator Emily Hughes. On the heels and in the spirit of her wondrous Wild, one of the best children’s books of 2014, Hughes tells the story of a tiny boy, no larger than a thumb, and his garden.
The charming, immeasurably sweet tale calls to mind what Van Gogh wrote to his brother: “Whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!” It is at heart a parable of purpose — tender assurance for anyone who has ever undertaken a labor of love against seemingly insurmountable odds and persevered through hardship, continuing to nourishing that labor until the love emanates out, becomes contagious, and draws in kindred spirits as a centripetal force of shared purpose and enthusiasm.
Hughes’s illustrations, vibrant and deeply alive, capture that strange tapestry of tenderness and wilderness of which the human soul is woven.
This was the garden.
It didn’t look like much, but it meant everything to its gardener.
It was his home. It was his supper.
It was his joy.
But the little gardener, joyful and hardworking as he is, isn’t “much good at gardening,” for he is “just too little” — a beautiful metaphor for that feeling familiar to any artist and entrepreneur at the outset of a creative project, that sense of smallness in the face of a seemingly enormous endeavor, that moment where humility and faith must converge in order for one to surmount the mental barrier and march forward.
Mismatch of task and capability notwithstanding, the little gardener’s hard work pays off and one thing does blossom.
It was a flower.
It was alive and wonderful.
It gave the gardener hope and made him want to work even harder.
And so he does — he toils day and night, tirelessly tending to his jungle of a garden.
Even so, it begins to perish, his home, his supper, and his joy all at stake.
One particularly hopeless night, the little gardener peers out the window of his tiny straw hut and sends a single wish into the night sky — he wished that he could have some help, so his beloved garden would be saved.
No one heard his little voice, but someone saw his flower.
It was alive and wonderful.
It gave the someone hope.
It made the someone want to work harder.
As he blows his wish into the cosmos with a heavy heart, the little gardner drifts into sleep just as heavy — he sleeps a whole day, a whole week, a whole month. But, meanwhile, the Gulliveresque girl enchanted by that single flower — the little gardener’s sole labor of love — begins tending to the whole garden.
By the time the little gardener awakens, the garden is transformed into a blooming wonderland, nurtured by the largeness of a contagious love the seed for which he had planted in the heart of another.
This is the garden now.
And this is its gardener.
He doesn’t look like much,
but he means everything to his garden.
The Little Gardener, a heartwarming delight in its entirety, comes from independent British picture-book powerhouse Flying Eye Books, makers of such treats as Hug Me, Monsters & Legends, Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, and the illustrated biography of Shackleton. Complement it with Hughes’s debut, Wild, then revisit one medieval gardener’s beautiful meditation on the spiritual uses of fruit trees.
Illustrations courtesy of Emily Hughes / Flying Eye Books
Published August 10, 2015