The power of flowers and unexpectedly enjoyable reading

posted in: Maurice Druon | 7

Want to know what book is the hottest property in our home at the moment?

The book we’re fighting over, the book that it’s almost impossible to take a photo of, because as soon as someone finds it they’ve hidden themselves away with it in a wardrobe with a torch, or under their bed with a bike light to read by? (And I’m talking about me here too, not just the kids…)

It’s a non-fiction book brilliantly illustrated with bags of humour, packed to the gunwales with interesting titbits of botany and biology, flora and fauna, a book that leaves us all itching to get our hands dirty and to try new things. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

So what it is?

Well… would you believe it? It’s a catalogue!

Rather surprising, perhaps, but proof that exciting and engaging reading can be found in unexpected places. And to be fair, this is no ordinary catalogue, but rather the vegetable seed catalogue from our favourite seed company.

This seed catalogue is truly a thing to delight in. The illustrations makes us all laugh, and the commentary on different seeds is both fascinating and funny. So good I have to recommend it even if you’re not in to gardening. Yes, really!

What we’ve been reading is actually last year’s catalogue (that’s how good it is!) – next year’s is due to arrive through our letter box any day now (and you can request one here) – but the reason it’s been pulled off our shelves again is that we recently read Tistou: The Boy with Green Thumbs, by Maurice Druon (translated by Humphrey Hare, updated by Francoise Jones).

A modern fairy tale about the curing, restorative power of nature, Tistou is a French children’s classic which has recently been republished by Hawthorn Press, a small publisher with the very laudable aim of contributing “to a more creative, peaceful and sustainable world” through the books it publishes.

Young Tistou discovers he really does have green fingers – or in his case, thumbs; wherever he presses down with his thumbs, flowers magically grow over night. Relishing his role as a guerilla gardener, Tistou secretly uses his power to improve the life of people around him. He transforms the local prison, turns the poor district of his town into an astonishing garden, and revolutionises the armaments factory his father owns. Flower power, it would seem, can tackle sickness, poverty, crime and even war.

If it all sounds a little overblown, I’d have to agree with you. The allegory isn’t subtle, and often the healing power of nature is trumpeted to such an extent that some passages read as a tirade against science. Despite my unease with this, the book was an enjoyable one to share. It really caught the imagination of my two kids, not least because they were delighted by the idea that a little kid could turn so many adult lives upside down, and challenge prevailing assumptions about how the world “ought to” work.

I certainly believe gardening can soothe the soul (if my allotment could speak it would tell you some stories about how my mood has changed within minutes of working there), and despite the problems I (as an adult) had with Tistou, I ended up finding it a satisfying read, and was glad to have shared it with my kids. I guess deep down I do believe the world would be a little bit healthier and happier if we all spent more time in the garden.

If your kids have enjoyed The Secret Garden, or are perhaps still a bit young to read it, I’d certainly suggest trying Tistou, and also another gardening-themed short children’s novel we’ve read recently, Lob by Linda Newbery (or one of our favourite picture books, Eddie’s Garden by Sarah Garland).

Tistou was made into an animated film in the early 1980s. Several clips are available to watch on YouTube (though none in English that I could find)

Inspired by Tistou, the girls and I have been planning what to plant in our allotment next spring. We used various vegetables to print a border on a large sheet of paper (the base of a bunch of celery is our favourite for veg printing)…

…and then we drew all the plants and other additions we want to have on our allotment next year. More surprising reading took place when M got excited by my RHS Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers – packed with photos and short texts, themed by colour and season.

J’s garden is going to have lots of “baffobils” in it… (can you work out what she meant?)

She also wants ladybirds, peas and ballerina plants.

M’s garden is going to have a bean den (can you spot her eyes peering out?) surrounded by flowers.

Whilst planning our gardens we listened to:

  • An old favourite, Talkin’ Harvest Blues by Stephanie Davies – all about the joys of seed catalogues (lyrics here)!
  • Where have all the flowers gone? sung here by Joan Baez
  • Daydream Believer by The Monkees

  • Other activities which would work well alongside reading Tistou include:

  • Making seed bombs, and doing a bit of your own guerilla gardening. You can read how we did just this here.
  • Planting seeds outdoors or in pots even though it’s December. Easy seeds to plant with kids at this time of year (in the Northern hemisphere) include Sweet Pea, broad bean and sunflowers – all of these are large seeds, easy for kids to handle, and all are “hardy” so they should withstand the frost and snow (though of course you could keep them inside the house or in a greenhouse till spring).
  • Gardening inside – I really want to try the succulent garden (with dinos) mentioned in this round-up of kid friendly indoor gardening projects from Modern Parents, Messy Kids.

  • What’s your favourite idealistic read? What (children’s) books would you include in a bundle “to change the world”?

    Disclosure: I received a free copy of Tistou to review. I was not paid for my review, nor was I under any obligation to review the book. I also received a free copy of the seed catalogue. I’m not affiliated to Chiltern Seeds in any way, other than being a regular, very happy customer of theirs.

    7 Responses

      • Zoe

        Thanks Lynne, and ReadItDaddy. I’m definitely all for getting more people growing things. For me it’s just another way to be creative – and I think it so full of optimism – you plant a dry hard little piece of something and from it you get something beautiful or delicious or both!

    1. Susan Stephenson

      I for one think the world would be a far better place if we had ballerina plants and baffobils! I love your seed catalogue too – how delightful.

      There’s an Australian author/illustrator you may not yet know, Zoe. His name is Peter Carnavas and he writes gentle change- the- world books. Last Tree in the City and The Children Who Loved Books in particular have an environmental message without being preachy.
      Susan Stephenson recently posted..Children’s Book Review, Diary of a Wombat

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