Tall, arched windows frame the children’s section of the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture located at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. It is a cozy alcove lined with low shelves of children’s books. In lieu of chairs, cushions are scattered about on its carpeted floor. Outside, purple-red Loropetalum shrubs and stubby branched Hebe sway in the wind, while inside in this book nook nine children, ages three to six, are in the midst of creating a garden of their own design. Two of the older children have appointed themselves to be the gardeners. Three other children, crouched and curled up into balls, are seeds, as am I. The remaining children move around to portray a fluttering butterfly, a buzzing bee, and a hummingbird—who asks if bees would ever sting a bird—and a growling wolf spider. Adults encircle us like a low-growing hedgerow; cued by the two diminutive gardeners, they extend their arms overhead and begin fluttering their fingers. They are the rain and sun necessary for us seeds to germinate and unfurl into two California poppies, one pink coneflower, and an apple tree, who informs us that not only does she bear green apples on her branches, but any kind of candy you want, as well.
Today’s Story Time at the library concludes with talk of where pollinators live and a pronouncement by the former wolf spider that he would like to grow smiles in the garden next time. Excited chatter and thank yous trail after the children and adults as they leave for a docent-led walk of the garden. The San Francisco Botanical Garden, 55 acres showcasing over 8,000 kinds of plants from all over the world, patiently and spectacularly awaits them.
Barbara Pitschel, head librarian from 1989 to 2010, created the reading program in 1994 to cultivate awareness of children’s books in the library’s collection. Since that time, Story Time has been held on the first and third Sunday of every month and the children’s book collection has grown from 500 books to more than 2,000 titles in the ensuing 22 years. Monthly themes, such as Blooms and Branches, Plants of California, Deep Roots: Families in the Garden, and Garden Mysteries showcase a featured book accompanied by a list of recommended books echoing the topic. As one of the library’s volunteer storytellers, I maintain that just as the library’s collection for children has grown, so has the intrinsic value of Story Time.
Beyond the delightful aspect of sheer entertainment, books can be portals to a myriad of adventures and events that foster the imagination, deepen our understanding of our connections to others, and offer ideas on how we can effect change for the better. In essence, books can inspire us to live richer, more engaged lives. It was today’s Story Time reading of On Meadowview Street, by Henry Cole, that inspired the children to transform the children’s section of the library into their very own garden. For the monthly theme of Cloud Forests and Conservation, On Meadowview Street is a heartwarming story of a young child named Caroline who is so enthralled by the beauty of a lone wildflower that she discovers in the front lawn of her new home that she immediately protects it from her dad’s lawn mower. Upon finding more wildflowers, and after the appearance of a butterfly, a wren, and bees in her yard, Caroline begins to wonder how she can make a home for them all. Enlisting the help of her parents, this proactive young gardener transforms her once monoculture front yard into a beautiful, natural biodiverse habitat awash in coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and bee balm, which inspires her neighbors to follow suit. Caroline may be just a character in a children’s book, but her actions demonstrated to the children at Story Time that they are not too small or too young to bring about change, to protect nature, and to create beauty.
“I sincerely believe that for the child, and the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.”
Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (1965)
Today’s visceral reaction of the children to On Meadowview Street is not a one-off. Whose Garden Is It? by Mary Ann Hoberman, the featured book for a past Summer Sunshine theme, prompted the children to mull over this question: Who does a garden really belong to? Is it the gardener who pulls up the weeds, is it the rain’s who nourished it, the worm who loosens the soil, or can any one person or one animal ever really own a garden? Or does a garden belong to and need us all? This book prompted a lively discussion among the children when I read it. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, available at the library in English, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Spanish, beautifully details in vibrant colors the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.
Story Time at the Helen Crocker Russell Library is not just an opportunity for children and families to experience the books at the library. It also provides a valuable opportunity for children to understand and connect to the natural world around us. And when you feel connected, you care.
Story Time—engaging children in the world of horticulture, gardening and plants, one page, one book, one leaf at a time.