July 17, 2019

Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden

Written by Andrew Larsen
Illustrated by Anne Villeneuve
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
May 2019

There will be many kids whose summer vacation will include hanging out with relatives, away from home. But if that away-from-home holiday is also based in the wide-openness of unstructured time without benefit of anchors such as immediate family and friends, it may seem insurmountable or boring. Still, sometimes it's necessary to take a chance on beginning something new for growth to happen.
From Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden by Andrew Larsen, illus. by Anne Villeneuve
Vincent has been sent to stay with his Aunt Mimi for the summer while his mother recuperates from an operation. A box of dirt balls from a secret admirer–"Are you sure this secret person even likes you?" I say. "They gave you a box of dirt!"–adds to the grayness of Vincent's new surroundings until he makes the acquaintance of Toma. As an icebreaker, Vincent brings down some of the dirt balls and suggests they throw them over the tall brick wall into the empty lot. An elderly man whom Toma calls Mr. Grumpypants  is watchful of their distraction.
From Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden by Andrew Larsen, illus. by Anne Villeneuve
What begins as a tiresome holiday becomes a summer with a new friend, playing ball, reading comics, visiting the ice cream truck and more when Mr. Grumpypants points out to the boys, balcony to balcony, that the empty lot is starting to green. In fact, Mr. Grumpypants whose name is Marco is a kindly gardener who helps the boys water the garden through the fence and teaches them about the flowers that had been sheltered in the dirt balls.

But when Vincent's mother feels well enough to have him home, he's saddened to leave everyone and the garden behind. Thankfully there's much to occupy a child before their next summer holiday and it will be a wonderful surprise when Vincent and Toma are reunited again and extend their gardening into something even more special.
From Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden by Andrew Larsen, illus. by Anne Villeneuve
Like his earlier picture book, See You Next Year (Owlkids, 2015), Andrew Larsen gets into the head of children on summer holidays. In Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden, Andrew Larsen emphasizes the turnaround from the gloomy unknown of new place to a brightness that comes from belonging. That goes for both Vincent and the apparently worthless dirt balls. It is the unknown that makes for the dullness. But, with time and a little nurturing, the new friendship and the piles of dirt blossom into something invaluable.

Though I know that Anne Villeneuve, author-illustrator of Loula is Leaving for Africa (Kids Can Press, 2013) and other books, typically uses ink and watercolour, it seems highly appropriate to use those two media in a picture book in which colourful blooms sprout from soil balls. By emphasizing the black ink in her opening illustrations with only celadon and rose to relieve the gloom, Anne Villeneuve hints at the coming of verdant green and colourful florals. Moreover, with her wonderful assortment of people and animals, from a toddler with his mother to other children, middle-aged persons and the elderly Marco, Anne Villeneuve brings life to a community in which children and flowers can grow.

Many may dismiss unstructured summers in urban settings as flat and uninspired for children but Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden makes it clear that sometimes the incredible can sprout from very little.

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