by Sam Juliano
Some may be inclined to label it a cross between Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden and Tim Burton’s exquisite 1990 dark fantasy film Edward Scissorhands, but in the end the defining spirit and essence of the staggeringly beautiful The Night Gardener by the Fan Brothers is fully attuned to the concept of passing on a special gift that will benefit succeeding generations. What happens in this sparsely worded but spaciously illustrated book is tantamount to a re-birth, a transformation, where creativity permanently replaces a longtime acceptance of the norm. It is a story about how an adult can pass on to an impressionable child the gift of a lifetime. The deceit of waking up to behold a new and astonishing treat from Mother Nature was of course integral to the narrative of Charlotte’s Web, where crowds from all over came to see the latest miracle at Homer Zuckerman’s barn. Though there isn’t a time frame explicitly asserted in The Night Gardener, the copyright page spread suggests the late 40’s/early 50’s by way of the car models and favored apparel. The opening sepia toned canvas turns out to be far more significant than it first appears to be, as it evokes a seemingly normal, everyday American town before the changes that will make it wholly extraordinary. We learn that the name of the street is Grimloch Lane, and that those who reside there are engaged in their own affairs – grocery shopping, carrying young children or transporting home tools by foot. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to see it in Thorton Wilder’s terms, though the name suggests something of the stagnant variety. Under the watchful eye of a young girl, everyone heads off in their own direction. If this was a mystery book, it would be difficult not to name the sinister looking fellow with his head down carrying a briefcase as the likely perpetrator in whatever events are to follow.
Alas, we discover almost immediately that the one to watch is the ladder carrier, who we observe walking past the boy William busy drawing the figure of an owl in the dirt. The older man, Asian with a white mustache, feigning a lack of interest walks by guided by a cane which helps to steady his heavy load. A nocturnal misty green takes over as we seen the man setting up with sheers and other tools, and under a distinctly magical night sky he begins his work with the sure hands of as barber wedding the agility of an acrobat. He is performing outside the windows of the Grimloch Orphanage, bringing in a nobility to the proceedings, but also identifying Michael himself as an orphan. A little after daybreak Michael runs out to address the commotion, which turns out to be for the astonished child some akin to the next Wonder of the World. The tree has been transformed through an acute manicure into a giant Owl, as if in answer to his own earlier outdoor ruminations. Eric Fan accentuates this nocturnal miracle via the striking contrast of green on sepia brown. Michael is too awe-struck to retreat from this seeming present from above and he remains glued to this topiary wonderment until bedtime.
In the meantime this exceedingly gifted tree sculptor arrives at his own house, one inundated with cats. The second phenomenon is of a relaxing cat, and felines are all over and under it. The beautification of Grimloch Lane is a nightly endeavor unfailingly delivering a crack of dawn reward to Michael and the area’s hoard of youngsters. A rabbit perched to hop and a parakeet sumptuously decorated by real life multi-colored birds, some nesting, complete a exquisite tapestry as the crowds begin to multiply. A ‘playful elephant’ is serenaded by a pinstriped musician holding a tuba, as another holds takes pictures with an old-fashioned boxed camera on a tripod, which offers up a second reference point of the story’s time period. A girl in pink dress holds a red balloon, while another holds on to a bicycle and still another is held up on his Dad’s back in this picture of unbridled amazement. Fan, the author opines that something very good was happening on Grimloch Lane, which Fan, the illustrator ups the pictorial ante with a friendly rabbit encore amidst house improvements and “the most magnificent masterpiece yet!” – a sprawling dragon , which invites some serious kid friendly immersion. this particular creation was so spectacular, that some of the townspeople hoist lanterns to illuminate this most startling of all the topiary creations.
But William notices something intriguing as the night sets in, if markedly mysterious. He follows a man with a ladder and other materials down a street and through alleys, and finally concludes this person could very well be the purveyor of pulchritude who is still wanting for identification. He followed the man to the entrance of Grimloch Park, whereupon he was told by the now confirmed “Night Gardener” that he was in the market for a little help to negotiate a skill practically as inconceivable as the one practiced by Rumpelstiltskin many hundreds of years ago. In a series of dreamy full moon grey-blue vignettes that evoke Puck, Oberon and Titania, the new team work though most of the night until the Night Gardener carries a sleeping Michael to a spot under a tree. The boy awakes to find a gift of a hedge sheers from the man who, having completed his mission has gone away in true Miss Rumphius form to share his talents with others. Then in five successive double page seasonal spreads the Fan Brothers demonstrate why this magisterial picture book should be wearing a medal from January 22th, 1917 and beyond, and why he should specifically be sitting in the winner’s circle.
The first shows how the park has been tuned into a hardwood shrine with shrub-like incarnations of large animals including a giraffe and rhinoceros. People visit and a hot air balloon hovers above in this glorious summer canvas. The leaves begin to drop off during the burnished autumn season, one where reds and yellows paint some incomparable kaleidoscopic bliss. There are no signs of magic during Winter when all the leaves are stripped bare, the the quiet beauty etched in white weaves its own atmospheric spell. A rainbow colored dusk illuminates the changed town which is a model of ordered greenery, manicured lawns and all kinds of delightful details like kids selling lemonade, an ice cream truck peddling its goods, a man tending his flowers, a pig traversing a front lawn, kids playing ball and holding balloons and most intriguing of all a husband and wife unloading a truck of greenery. The man is Asian and is wearing a familiar hat. And then William, the inheritor of one of the most enviable responsibilities ever is seen performing in idyllic bliss.
The Night Gardener is one of the most beautifully conceived, written and illustrated picture books in this or any other year. Caldecott attention does seem like a given. The graphite and digitally colored art is supplemented with one of the year’s most magnificent dust jacket covers, lovingly ornamented end papers and an inside cover of light green on black establishing identification within a striking branch and leafy wreath. The Fan Brothers live and work in Toronto, but both were born in the U.S., validating their eligibility.
Note: This is the thirty-seventh entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 40 to 45 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.