The only fault I could find in this beautifully illustrated, deftly narrated book is the title, which doesn’t include “James,” my name and your official reader and reviewer. I found myself so swept up in a community of very alive characters—so like my best self, and so like my unfortunate differences with that self—every time I opened this book, which felt both embracing and bracingly instructive.
Take Vincent, a principal character, if one can use the word “principal” in such a warmly
active community. Vincent is a little boy of color; I am neither, and yet I see myself in him because Vincent is resilient, optimistic, thoughtful, and energetic—all qualities I think of as part of my best self. Vincent is staying with his aunt, Mimi, in the city for the summer, since his mother, in Vincent’s words, “had an operation. It’s nothing serious, but she has to take it easy for a while.”
Now I am no mind reader, but I can take a hint. As I watch a tiny Vincent clutching a tinier suitcase approach a largely blue-tinted, barren apartment complex, I feel my best self, in lockstep, turning to deny feelings too painful to embrace or even acknowledge. The first step up from this gloomy introduction is the sprightly color and life of the flowers on the floor of Mimi’s balcony. The second big step up is Aunt Mimi herself.
Aunt Mimi looks at us—Vincent and I strangers though we are—with a well-read eye, reads our despondency, and invites us to paint our guest room for the summer in our own choice of colors! We can’t decide; so with Solomonic wisdom, Aunt Mimi suggests that we paint with our favorite two colors. And before we can wink, we are into our painting clothes and personalizing our new bedroom with vigor, and with a bicolor palette and stripes!
Aunt Mimi is so quick to see with boys’ eyes that you wonder if she isn’t preternaturally perfect. There are subtle hints that Aunt Mimi is in love, with that second sight and the strength to use it that some lovers are gifted with so generously. As for ourselves, along with some adroit coaching from Mimi, we make a new friend, Toma, who is about our own age. And as our friendship grows, with both setbacks and bold forward steps, so does the courtyard garden bloom with the rough love of two boys, new best friends, and then with the help of a community that just needed a nudge, or two. . . or three?
“Mr. Grumpypants” certainly needed, in the eyes of Vincent and Toma, a powerful nudge to become an ally and not a critic of the two boys. At first, his critical regard is most definitely “thumbs down.” Then he sees the light and responds with energy that tilts even anonymous passers-by into joiners.
The levers that turn a community of passive observers into joiners and planners are there in plain sight to see, but until characters we get to know start to move those levers we are doubters too. And the best part is that we become explorers even after closing this gripping tale. We look for yet unmoved levers in the most unlikely “concrete gardens” of our own world. What friends will move those levers, sow those gardens with us? And thanks to Andrew Larsen and Anne Villeneuve for allowing this new/old story to unfold with such grace and meaning that it becomes our story.