Monday, April 5, 2010

PASSAGE OF TIME: The Curious Garden

How many times have you fallen in love with a book just from hearing its title? From the get-go I was curious: What could a "Curious Garden" be? The cover image intrigued me as well--what was this redheaded kid sitting on top of a tree doing, with an open book, looking straight out at me, surrounded by topiary birds and butterflies in addition to the real ones? Then when I opened the book, the endpapers posed more questions. Huh? Rocks? No garden here. But the title page foreshadows the whimsical garden, as the boy, having abandoned his book, now actively trims the luxuriant hedge. The title, the cover, the front endpapers, and the title page all led me straight into the story.

Mem Fox says,

At the start of a story we need to be as direct as possible. It’s a common sin to beat about the bush, and waffle on for too long. We should attempt to say who, when, and where in the first two sentences, and then begin to state the problem. We have to solve a problem during a story otherwise we have no trouble. Without trouble we have no plot. Only trouble is interesting.
Many picture books introduce the problem on the first page, then solve the problem in a short time frame. Such diverse books as Where the Wild Things Are, Ella Sarah Gets Dressed, and The Snow Day, for example, take place during the course of a day. A day, or two, is a reasonable and understandable time frame for a young child. But the problem introduced in the first spread (pages 2-3) of The Curious Garden is a big problem--it's the problem of a whole dreary city. And the boy is only a tiny little person--the only person visible--in the drab, smoggy city.

It's clearly going to take a long time for this little boy to solve the problem--and I wondered how Peter Brown would solve his problem of the passage of time--lots and lots of time--in the text of a picture book for young children. So as I read the story I focused on how Brown dealt with the passage of time. Of course the lush illustrations portray the passage of time, sometimes even in wordless two-page spreads, but I was also curious about how Brown clarifies the passage of time in the text.

Sometimes the time reference is in the beginning of a sentence. At the outset, Brown moves us way back in time, setting the story in a time of long ago with the very beginning of the first sentence: "There was once a city...." (p. 3) And when the story action begins, Brown identifies one particular day at the beginning of the sentence: "It was on one such morning...." (p. 4)

Sometimes the time reference is in the middle of a sentence: "So he returned to the railway the very next day and got to work." (p. 8)

And sometimes the time reference is at the end of a sentence: "Liam's time on the railway was finally interrupted by winter. " (p. 16)

Gail Carson Levine, in Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly, says,

In most cases, your story or book should end when its problem is solved, for good or for ill. (p. 75)
It takes a long time for the problem of The Curious Garden to be solved. On the last page, Brown clarifies how long: "Many years later, the entire city had blossomed. But of all the new gardens, Liam's favorite was where it all began." (p. 30) Many years--only 556 words--and Liam's children enjoy the garden as he prunes the gigundo tree that has grown from the dried up little seedling he discovered so many years before.

The days, the seasons, the years flow through this gem of a story--and the passage of time flows through the text, never clunky, never showy, but clear and steady so we never lose track of where, or rather when, the story action takes place.

StorySleuths Tip #60 : Hide references to the passage of time in different locations--not only at the beginnings of sentences or paragraphs. Try integrating them into the middle of sentences and paragraphs, or even at the end.