Are you looking for a new hero as a role model for your children? Are you wanting a change from the glossy. modern storybooks that rehash the same themes? Think retro. Think fifties. Think Zion+Graham.

The DFF Book Club

This month’s DFF Book Club title is by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham, although I bet you don’t recognise the names. They’re a famous couple in children’s classic storybooks and the creators of Harry the Dirty Dog, Harry by the Sea and No Roses for Harry.

Can you picture the pointy-nosed mutt in your mind? Good, now take that same illustrative style and you’ve got the beauty that makes The Plant Sitter a real gem.

The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion

The story starts inside the front cover, with a picture of a little boy reaching up to press a door-bell. Turn the page to the title page, and the story continues. The boy is carrying plants to his little wagon, and an elderly lady is beaming at him from the doorstep.

Clearly, this is a friendly little boy, and if the little old lady likes him, you like him too — and you haven’t even read one single word apart from the title. (Now how many books are that effective?)

You turn the page again, and the dialogue starts:

“I’m a plant sitter!” said Tommy.
“That’s nice, dear,” said his mother. “Tell me about it later. I’m going shopping and I’ll be back soon.”

Now, if this mother lived here and now, she’d be charged with neglect for leaving her son unsupervised, which makes me like this story even more. This takes me back to a simpler time, when children were allowed to roam free, parents trusted their neighbourhoods and animals smiled.

Now, clearly, Tommy’s mother underestimates him, and the reader (and listeners) begin to realise what a special boy Tommy is. When the mother gets home, she opens the door to find plants everywhere!

The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion
"What's going on here?" she gasped.

Sometimes with retro books, the primitive colour printing short-changes the illustrations. For instance, I love Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps for Sale but the colours drive me crazy!

Graham’s illustrations use only blue (cyan) and yellow along with the black, but the combination makes a range of greens that suit the story perfectly. And Graham’s line drawings retain her trademark simplicity while providing rich details that enhance the story beyond the narrative.

Tommy is so cheerful, so delighted with his new job, that he tackles it with relish. He positions the plants carefully — in the sun or the shade, and looks after them according to their needs.

The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion
He watered them carefully — some a lot — and others just a little.

When you’re reading this to children, this illustration naturally flows into a discussion about the water needs of plants and why Tommy would be using an eye-dropper. I love this book because of all the extra conversation it can stimulate.

Tommy keeps smiling as he goes about his work. His pleasant demeanour and enthusiasm captivates the readers and overpowers his father’s glower over the breakfast table.

The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion
In the morning when the family had breakfast, they were surrounded by plants in the kitchen. It was just like having a picnic in the woods! But Tommy's father didn't seem to enjoy it at all.

So here’s the dark side to the enterprise. His father does not enjoy the plants. The work is hard. Tommy tires. His plants grow so well that they start to become unruly.

In bed one night, Tommy dreams that the plants are taking over the house. He wakes with a start and runs out of the house, intent on finding a solution.

At this point in the narrative, the reader still can’t imagine what Tommy is going to do. Is he going to run away from his problem, or how will he solve it? The reader is emotionally invested, hoping that Tommy will be okay and stay happy because, really, he’s such a likeable chap.

The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion
Tommy ran all the way to the library and looked at every book they had about plants. Finally he found just the right book!

This is a move that melts any book-lover’s heart. Here’s the boy-hero, reading at the library, researching his problem and finding a solution. Ah, bliss.

Tommy goes to a plant supply shop and buys some things before hurrying home and trimming the plants. This is the obvious solution to his problem, but Tommy is no ordinary boy. He is exceptional.

The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion
Then he planted the cuttings in the little flower pots he'd bought. The book said they would grow.

Look at the carton of rooting powder on his shelf. You could turn this book into a unit study and set up your own shelf of propagated plants!

So Tommy’s created all these little plants. What a great money-making opportunity! (Or so I was thinking.) But not Tommy!

The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion
Tommy gave baby plants to all the children, and everyone went home feeling very happy.

He gives them away! (Can I adopt Tommy? I just adore him!)

There aren’t many books that fit all the retro/role-model/instructive illustrations/warm-fuzzy-feeling categories, which makes The Plant Sitter such a winner. It’s certainly a favourite on our shelves and has managed to stay out despite all the cartons of books that have been packed away for New Zealand.

This is such a nice book. I just love reading it to my girls. I want to be Tommy’s friend, I want to live on Tommy’s street, I want Tommy to be my girls’ role model.

And you, too, you’d like Tommy, I’m sure. There’s just one little catch. The Plant Sitter is out-of-print.

You can find it via Amazon, Abebooks and ebay for close to $50. (Disheartening, I know — unless you have a rich uncle who never really knows what to buy your children as presents.) However, if you’re quick, there’s a copy of The Plant Sitter on the New Zealand auction site trademe.co.nz. Bid for it now!