Every morning, Dutch is excited to hear the Gardener wake up. He knows that once she's done her mysterious morning things, he'll get to go outside with her. The Dog's Gardener (Groundwood Books, illustrated by Nathalie Dion) by Patricia Storms is pure charm as a picture book, inverting the usual pet-parent dynamic with Dutch the dog taking centre stage as the protagonist, and his owner, "The Gardener", serving as a loyal sidekick as they explore the beauty of outside together.
Nathalie Dion's bright and joyful illustrations pair perfectly with Storms' text to create a gentle, thoughtful story about taking pleasure in small, daily joys, the natural world, and the people we love. Funny, sweet, and wise, it's a fabulous read to usher in summer fun for readers both big and small.
We're happy to welcome Patricia to Open Book today to talk about The Dog's Gardener as part of our Kids Club series for writers for young readers.
She tells us about the sunny small town walk where she stumbled across the inspiration for the book, why honesty is the most important quality when writing for children, and what it's like being part of the kidlit writing community in Canada.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
The inspiration for The Dog’s Gardener came to me unexpectedly on a summer day in the town of Port Hope, about four years ago. My husband Guy and I were having a little vacation in one of the local Bed & Breakfast Inns. On this particular day, we decided to go for a long walk in the historic part of Port Hope. The homes in this area have the most delightful gardens. As we were walking, I noticed a man in the backyard of a large estate. He was tall and lanky, his long hair completely white, tied back into a ponytail. His movements were calm and slow – I found myself drawn to the peaceful rhythm of his walk. Then my eye began to notice something behind him – a large white retriever bounding with joy. The rhythm of both their movements was mesmerizing. Being a curious and overly imaginative person, I began to wonder about the life of this gardener (I made the assumption that he was the gardener for this estate). What brought him here, at this lovely moment in time? What was his story? But then I thought to myself, it’s too predictable to consider only the life of this man – why not explore the story of his dog? As soon as I thought this, the title of the book came to me like a gift – The Dog’s Gardener. I dug into my pockets and realized that I had not brought any writing material with me, so I pressured my husband to please try to remember ‘The Dog’s Gardener’ until we could get back to the Inn. Every now and then I would whisper the title to myself, and then remind my husband. I wrote some quick notes when we got back to the Inn, and when we finally returned to Toronto, the story spilled out of me. A simple, loving tale about the day in the life of a dog, and his beloved gardener. So really it is a story about love. I enjoy writing humorous stories, but I feel the most fulfilled when I write about love.
Did the book look the same in the end as your originally envisioned it when you started working, or did it change through the writing process?
The core of the story remained the same, but what really changed were the visuals. I am an illustrator, but for most of my career, I have focused on humorous illustration. Lately more soft and gentle stories are coming out of me, and though I can certainly draw soft and gentle, I wasn’t up to illustrating a picture book with a new style on a tight deadline. Like with my previous book, Moon Wishes (illustrated by the amazing Milan Pavlovic), I really love the experience of someone else illustrating my words. I’m very fortunate to have all these rich experiences. The artist Nathalie Dion created a beautiful, lush world, as well as adding some charm and class. I knew I definitely wanted the gardener to be a woman, and I imagined the dog as male. When I first drew up the storyboard for the book, I had envisioned the female gardener to be middle-aged, and well, a wee bit frumpy. I also assumed her home would be a cosy, messy ramshackle house, not unlike our own home (heh). But Nathalie had other ideas – her gardener was a young stylish woman with bright red hair who resided in a very tasteful home. Nathalie took my story to a place I had not imagined, and that’s what makes a great picture book illustrator – one who adds another rich layer to the original story. She made The Dog’s Gardener a place where I wanted to be. I hope other readers feel the same way when they read our book.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
It’s not really super important where I am – as long as I have paper, pencil and my laptop. When new ideas hit me, I really like to write longhand with a pencil and any paper that I find near me. The tactile experience of pencil touching paper is very important to me, I think because that’s how I initially learned to write. Also, I usually storyboard when I write a picture book, so there’s usually sketches and words, which hopefully grow into something tangible. Once I feel the story has good bones, I will continue polishing it in Word. Coffee is a must. As is complete and utter silence. I cannot write with music or television because I’m sensitive to sounds and it tends to conflict with my brain needing to relax and go into a relaxed dream state. When I am in that zone, I don’t care about anything but my story. Along with painting, it’s my happy safe place.
Do you feel like there are any misconceptions about writing for young people? What do you wish people knew about what you do?
Oh yes, the usual misconceptions – that it’s easy to write a picture book, that people who write for children are just waiting for that chance to write a ‘real’ book for adults, that having children is a prerequisite for writing for children. You don’t have to have kids to write for kids. You do need to remember what it was like to be a kid, though. Which means you have to be really honest. Writing for kids is hard work. And when it comes to writing picture books, every word on the page has to pass muster so to speak. You’ve got a limited amount of pages to tell a compelling, story (be it soft or funny) which not only has to engage a child, but also the adult who more than likely purchased the book. If the child loves a certain book, he or she will want to have it read to them over and over. It better be a good story that does not make a parent or grandparent want to throw the book across the room after the 50th reading. The kidlit world does not need any more didactic stories, or really badly written rhyme. We need delight, enchantment, and wisdom.
How would you describe the writing community in Canada in terms of authors writing for young people? What strengths and weaknesses do you observe within the community?
When I am feeling grumpy or sorry for myself, I have to remind myself of how incredibly lucky I am to be a part of such a wonderful community. It’s a business, yes, but overall I have witnessed endless support and affection for other writers and artists, especially now that we are all trying to hold it together in this pandemic. As one of my writer friends has said to me, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
What are you working on now?
I recently sent off some new stories which I hope find a home. One in particular means so much to me – it’s another story about love and gardens. I cried big tears when I wrote it, and I find if I am crying when I am writing, then I’m doing good work. Another wonderful children’s author brought this to my attention, about crying, and she is so right. And I think I am finally ready to write a story about my own personal background – a unique mix of Canadian prairie father and Jamaican mother. It’s churning inside me so I will answer its call.
Patricia Storms has been an author and illustrator of children’s books for more than twenty years. Her previous books include Moon Wishes, written with Guy Storms, illustrated by Milan Pavolvic; Never Let You Go, which she wrote and illustrated; By the Time You Read This… written by Jennifer Lanthier and If You’re Thankful and You Know It, written by Chrissy Bozik. Patricia’s work has also been featured in Chirp and KNOW magazines. She lives in Toronto.