My love of stories with characters who are animals probably started with Beatrix Potter and Winnie-the-Pooh when I was too young to remember. As I got older I found Brian Jacques’s Redwall series and Watership Down and The Book of the Dun Cow and S.D. Smith’s Green Ember series and others.
Towering above all these books, though, is the Old Mother West Wind series by Thorton W. Burgess. I suppose my ceaseless reading about anthropomorphic animals has been a quest to regain the childhood wonder and delight of traipsing through the Green Forest with Bobby Raccoon, Peter Rabbit, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, and the rest of Burgess’s characters. But I’ve never found quite the same magic — until I read A Year in the Big Old Garden by James D. Witmer.
Every sentence in Witmer’s collection of seasonal stories — three each for spring, summer, fall, and winter, for a total of 12 stories — is a delight. Set in a backyard garden, these tales are populated by a cast of characters that includes “Sammy, the happiest gray squirrel in the world”; his seventh-cousin-once-removed, Jasper the chipmunk; Trixie the orange-striped cat; Smudge, a rabbit who recently arrived in the garden; and a handful others. Each of the stories is self-contained, a brief snapshot of a moment in the garden.
A Year in the Big Old Garden has several things that commend it. Witmer’s style and voice communicate a joyful whimsy so clearly that I can’t imagine the grin ever leaving his face while writing these (though I suspect it took a lot of work). The stories are moral but not moralizing, and delightful without ever becoming twee.
I want to highlight two elements of A Year in the Big Old Garden that I noticed on my first read-through and which I think make Witmer’s stories especially well suited for children.
First, Witmer’s stories are full of precisely the sort of repetition that every children’s story should have. “In a big old tree in a big old garden behind a big old house lived Sammy, the happiest grey squirrel in the world,” begins the first story. And the second: “In a big spruce tree in a big old garden behind a big old house lived a bold red cardinal and his beautiful buff-colored wife.” And the third: “In a big old tree in a big old garden behind a big old house lived the happiest grey squirrel in the world.” You get the idea.
You’ll find similar repetition within the stories. For example, when Sammy scrambles out of his nest every morning, he squeezes “between two very tight branches—first his head, then his front legs, then his middle, then his back legs, and finally his tail.” On his way in, he goes backward, “just for fun—first his tail, then his back legs, then his middle, then his front legs, and finally his head.” In and out, in and out, and always in the same manner.
These are not examples of Witmer’s laziness or lack of creativity. Instead, they’re a sort of liturgy that gives children a sense of familiarity and comfort, that can make them feel at home; they’re signposts that orient them to their place in the stories — and in the world. The world is repetitive, after all, and children’s lives are repetitive, and it’s a wonder that this intentional structure doesn’t more often order their stories, too.
Second, Witmer gives his young readers the pleasure of understanding what’s going on before the characters realize it. In the second story, brave Mr. Cardinal spies something disturbing near his spruce tree home: “In the side of the big old house was a big, dark, shiny, square hole. And, if he looked into the hole, Mr. Cardinal could see the bright red coat of another cardinal!” As Mr. Cardinal sets out to drive off this stranger, children begin to understand even before the big reveal that (spoiler alert!) Mr. Cardinal has been hoodwinked by his own reflection.
In a later story, a lovelorn and remarkably obtuse rabbit named Smudge spends the entire time missing painfully obvious cues from Daisy, a young doe who is looking for a buck to settle down with. Young readers are given the gift of figuring out what happens long before Smudge does, the poor rabbit.
I’ve already overrun my word count, so two more quick notes, one for the reader and one for James.
To the reader: If you buy this short collection of short stories (and you should), you certainly won’t regret dropping $2.99 for the ebook — but what you really should do is spring the extra $3 to get it on audiobook. Jimmy Kiefer is a flawless narrator, perfectly suited to the Big Old Garden stories.
And to James: Write more stories. Please. More and longer. I want to spend more time in your big old garden, maybe enough time that it requires several chapters and a narrative arc that stretches out like a late summer evening. And then, when you’ve told enough stories, if it isn’t asking too much, I’d like to see them bound in a fine cloth-bound book that smells like my childhood.