The Plot Thickens – the Allure of Gardens to Children’s Authors

When I was five years old, my parents moved from a lush, magical garden in the Blue Mountains to a cattle farm in central-western NSW. It was during one of the worst droughts in Australian history. My parents didn’t bother gardening in those early years. I remember the dust sweeping in off the hills; the endless landscape of brown, scorched earth. Green became a colour I saw only in storybooks. To escape the heat, I spent my summer holidays lost in the intriguing and verdant world of those books.

I started with picture books, such as The Plantsitter (Gene Zion), about a little boy whose house is overrun with greenery when he decided to look after his neighbours’ plants for the holidays, and Sally’s Secret (Shirley Hughes), about a little girl who finds her dream cubby, hidden among the camellia bushes of her garden.

Moving on to The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett), Anne of Green Gables (LM Montgomery), The Selfish Giant (Oscar Wilde) and Tom’s Midnight Garden (Philippa Pearce), I noticed my reading habits taking on a theme. But it was the moment I first read about Mary’s discovery of a locked door to a secret garden that I was truly bewitched.

I spent my childhood searching for a similar locked door; for Tom’s midnight paradise, or Anne’s ‘White Way of Delight’. And, in some way, I found them. I played out the mystery and wonder of these tales beneath the she-oaks on the banks of the creek, while the Australian scrub (stark in its contrast to the pretty cottage gardens of my favourite books) revealed its own beauty and intrigue to me.

Image by Penny Harrison
Image by Penny Harrison

Then, when the rain finally came, there was the glorious old orchard with its canopy of greenery and branches heavy with fruit, along with the untamed native garden my parents created – both ripe for exploring and imagining.

The mystery of gardens as a theme has its roots deeply entwined throughout children’s literature, reaching back through the centuries. It has a way of enchanting children and igniting an enduring fascination with nature.”

I remain unable to resist the magic that can be found in just about any garden. It doesn’t take much to spark my curiosity: the hanging branches of a mature tree, a meandering pathway, a simple garden gate. And, suddenly, I’m transported back to the possibility of that keyhole and the mystery that might unfold.

But that mystery is also heavily intertwined with the history of a garden, along with its ever-changing future. For gardens are so much more than pretty places of tranquil respite. They’re wild and exciting and they’re constantly evolving.

Now a children’s author myself, I’m sure it is no mystery what inspires most of my stories. My latest picture book, The Art Garden (EK Books), was influenced by the renowned gardener and artist patron Sunday Reed, whose Heart Garden, at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, in Melbourne, is an enigma of passion and betrayal and artistic fervour.

One of my favourite places to explore, Sunday’s gardens and her abundant creativity are a constant source of inspiration. But I’ve always wondered if Sunday ever aspired to be one of the artists she supported and so admired. I wanted to delve into that mystery and the concept of gardening as art in this book.

Yes, the lure of the garden still has a firm grip on my psyche. And, as the years roll on, the stories continue to captivate me.”

In The Flower (John Light/Lisa Evans), a boy working in a bleak city library discovers a mysterious book of flowers in a room marked ‘dangerous books’. After searching the city for this amazing creation, he finds a dusty old seed packet in an old junk shop. The Night Gardener (Terry and Eric Fan), has another dreary setting, but the town (and the orphan boy who lives there) is given new hope when elaborate topiaries start appearing overnight.

The Little Gardener (Emily Hughes) is a tiny boy, no bigger than a thumb, who struggles to keep up with the labour of love in tending his garden. One night, he wishes on his single bloom for someone to help.

So many stories to enrich the fertile minds of children and sow the seeds of intrigue – with books and nature. I’ve spent my life looking for Mary’s locked door and the natural treasure that lies within. Actually, I believe I may have finally found it, in my home on the banks of the Yarra River.

Here is the garden of my childhood fantasies, thick with camellias and bluebells and deciduous trees, with winding paths to follow and secret nooks to discover – the towering eucalypts and rambling natives along the river an ever-present reminder of my roots.”

It, too, has its own intriguing past, with a mystery or two waiting to be explored. But, of course, that’s another story.

Penny Harrison is the author of several children’s books, including Dance with Me and The Art Garden. To find out more about Penny’s stories you can visit her WEBSITE / INSTAGRAM / FACEBOOK / TWITTER.

All images by Penny.

Image by Penny Harrison
Image by Penny Harrison