Lily’s Garden of India by Jeremy Smith is a marvelous way for children between 4 and 7 to learn about the flora in India. It’s a must read for budding young naturalists.
The protagonist, one assumes from the text and the illustrations, is a Caucasian child, whose mother has a garden filled with flowers from all over the world. One day, Lily stumbles upon a path she’s never noticed. And something extraordinary happens to this girl. The plants begin to talk to her and give her interesting tidbits about themselves. From the very beginning, Smith sets up the unreal to seem plausible. Lily takes it in her stride that a jasmine plant knows her name and wants to tell her a story. A good listener, she sinks into the soft grass. But when the reader turns the page, she sees that Lily has become part of the story the jasmine plant is narrating. Indian children adorn her with jasmine garlands while the plant continues to enlighten her. This pattern of being part of the story while listening to various flowers, plants, or trees continues throughout the book. The personalities of the various flora are revealed through their voices. The banyan tree calls out to her with its huge booming voice. When she finds herself underneath its roots, she’s with a group of people who are using it as a shrine.
After its tale, a group of marigolds giggle. They tell her that people send their petals spinning into the Ganges at Diwali to give thanks to God. Lily gets into a boat that floats in the river, surrounded by diyas and marigolds. It takes her to the next narrator, a coconut tree, who has lived in India for over a thousand years. In its croaking voice it tells her that besides being useful for its fruit, its leaves thatch huts and are made into thread to stitch fishermen’s boats together. Lily splits open a coconut shell to drink the milk and eat the flesh.
The neem tree, the mango tree, the tea plant, and the lotus also talk about themselves. Never does Lily ask them a question, but perhaps, if she did it would seem like the author is extricating information. Smith’s straightforward prose coupled with Lily’s calm acceptance of the unusual is the right formula for the tale.
At sunset, the plants are silent and at rest. Finally, the familiar voice of Lily’s mother calls out to her daughter. When she asks Lily where she was, she replies magnificently, “I’ve been across the world to India, where I have sailed on the Ganges River, walked across tea fields, and stood under a vast tree the size of many houses.”
The educational value of the picture book would have been too obvious if Smith had attempted to overwhelm the reader with facts in the story. Instead, he creates an atmosphere of enchantment. He also piques the child’s natural curiosity and interest so that when she wants more, she can turn to the glossary of the kinds of plants and trees Lily encounters as well as the page on a few important Indian festivals. Finally, there is a bonus that could serve as a permanent reminder of Lily’s garden. Step-by-step instructions, accompanied by illustrations, tell the reader how to grow a marigold. The supplemental materials add to the value of the book, especially as classroom material.
Rob Hefferan’s playful illustrations in watercolors help to bring out the fictional aspects. We also understand some of the action, real or imagined on Lily’s part, by relying on the pictures. Both the author and the illustrator are based in England where the picture book was first published.
Lily’s Garden of India will evoke that sense of wonder we love in children. After reading it, the next time a child looks at nature, her own imagination will have a free rein. —Tara Menon