BIBLIO: 2022, River Horse Publishing, Ages 2 to 5, $18.99.
REVIEWER: Rebecca Stewart
FORMAT: Picture Book
In The Garden Next Door, Collin Pine presents pollinator-friendly backyard gardening as an accessible source of wonder for children and an entryway into community.
The story follows three grade-school friends as they look for ways to entertain themselves on long summer days in their suburban neighborhood. When fascinating creatures such as hummingbirds, butterflies, and dragonflies visit them, only to disappear into the next-door neighbor’s yard, they embark on a mission to find out what’s on the other side of that fence.
After scaling the fence and surprising their neighbor, the children discover that just next door is a colorful, inviting landscape of wildflowers—a “wild garden” where there’s “so many cool things to see.” Their curiosity piqued, they strike up a new friendship with the neighbor, who shows them the many animals and insects who have come to pay her garden a visit.
The attention to detail in this part of the book, which includes plenty of references to specific plants and pollinators as well as carefully rendered, close-up illustrations, is a unique feature that will engage children and adults alike, rewarding repeat readers. While this part of the narrative is simple, with characters pointing to various creatures and naming them, it is also succinct, and the attention to rhythm as well as some subtle alliteration avoids turning it into a list. The colorful, charming digital illustrations by Tiffany Everett include a nice variety of images in terms of scale and composition, which is sure to keep kids’ eyes fixed on the page. The author’s expertise in environmental science and the illustrator’s personal interest in the natural world lend depth and precision to the depiction of the neighbor’s backyard garden and a sense of real care with the subject matter. Pine’s choice of locale for the story, suburban Illinois, works well since it has flora and fauna that will be broadly recognizable to his US audience, and it remains specific enough for scientific accuracy. We do not see much of the children’s family life, nor is the story’s focus on cultural representation, but there is on-page BIPOC representation in this book; the characters include two Asian-American children, their parents, their Black friend, and the new backyard gardener friend who is also Black. Still, while the story is not meant to be character-driven, one difficulty for readers might be the lack of depth in the characterization. The children and their neighbor are never referred to by name, which presents some awkwardness within the prose (“the boy’s friend”), as well.
Though it subtly invokes the children’s literature classic, The Secret Garden, The Garden Next Door shows that the magic of gardening is meant to be shared with human and animal neighbors, not locked away. The message of the book, which promotes the idea of interdependence among humans and the natural world, as well as between human neighbors—is a timely one, as is the importance of protecting our pollinators. Though the neighbor’s garden is impressive, the story presents gardening as a hobby for anyone to enjoy, even kids who want to sprinkle a few wildflower seeds in their backyard and watch them grow.