There are picture-books. And there are how-to books. And occasionally, publishers attempt a little cross-fertilization with the how-to picture-book. Beaver the Gardener
fits into this category. In the fourth book of a series from Groundwood, Beaver and his young friend, Frippy, grow bean plants from white beans. The book is charming in its own way. It was first published in Sweden and has a Scandinavian feel. The illustrations wash pleasingly across a white background in a palette of blues, greens, and greys, warmed with splashes of yellow gold and terracotta. The resulting domestic scene is a sort of cross between Carl Larsson and Ikea.
The premise is that Beaver's potted plant has died; he is looking for something new to spruce up his windowsill. The old plant, drooping sadly, is not the best thing to instill confidence in the budding gardener. But never mind: Beaver is not discouraged and neither are we, for Frippy arrives with white beans spilling out of a shopping bag. "Perfect," Beaver says. "We can grow these beans." The pair soak the beans overnight. The next morning they plant them, water them, and then wait. A few days later, when the beans come up, they put bamboo sticks in the pots for the plants to climb on.
The bean plants are truly lovely as they grow their way across a double-page spread. The steps for planting them are explained informally in the text, with more detailed instructions in a box on the last page. Beaver the Gardener certainly makes you want to get out your pots and grow some beans, too. The book even makes the prospect of eating buttered beans sound "really yummy", as Frippy says.
In the end, though, I am left wondering if the how-to picture-book is necessary. Could readers be equally enticed to grow beans or other plants if the book had no cute characters or no attempt at a narrative? Perhaps not-a book on growing a bean plant would be pretty bland and pretty short. Taking and adapting the picture-book format does spice things up a bit. Instructions become livelier and perhaps more memorable.
But, as with most gains, there are losses. In this case the picture-book side is the loser. With its necessary didactic elements, the text is uninspiring from the point of view of story. There is no drama, no surprise. The feeling is of a picture-book that is watered down. Perhaps that is not such a bad thing when the topic is gardening. But it may explain why how-to picture-books tend not to become perennial favourites. They are serviceable, they are often amusing, and they may help us remember the steps for starting a new skill. The question is, will readers remember the book itself?
Margo Beggs is a former Books for Young People editor at Quill & Quire and is studying art history part-time at the University of Toronto. She wishes that she had grown her own bean plants this summer.