Today’s book review is for Mishan’s Garden, written by James Vollbracht, illustrated by Janet Brooke, published by Wisdom Publications. I received an electronic copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The book will be released on Tuesday, October 15, 2013.
Mishan’s Garden is the story of a young girl, Mishan, who lives in a small village high in the mountains of Tibet. She is an innkeeper’s daughter and often helps him around the inn. Her father tells her that one day a beautiful garden will bloom behind the inn–and though she is doubtful, she starts to tend the land anyway. She also starts to tell the people who visit the inn what aspect of the garden they are like, such as the strong and mighty tree or the lilacs blowing in the wind. One day she goes out to check on the garden and falls ill. The villagers, who have grown fond of Mishan discover her lying on the ground outside and rush to help care for her. Then, something magical happens. It is a story about hope and seeing the best in people.
I had a couple of problems in reading this story. The first is that it smacked of cultural appropriation–a white man tells a mystical story about a young Asian girl who is wise beyond her years. Since there is no author’s note in the book stating that the story was adapted from a traditional tale, I’m going to assume that it’s purely of Vollbracht’s invention. While I love books that explore multiculturalism, this one just felt like someone constructing a stereotypical “Asian wisdom narrative.”
Which brings me to my second big issue, which is that this felt like a grown-up book disguised as a children’s book. It felt a lot like the stories in the Buddhist canon–the sort of stories that children might be able to understand, but aren’t actually targeted to that audience. Mishan uses rather sophisticated similes when speaking to her father’s customers. Some of the core themes of the book might be a little abstract for the usual picture-book-reading audience. While I don’t think that books should be “dumbed down” for kids, neither do I think they should be inaccessible.
Janet Brooke’s illustrations are a bit bland, as well. Many of them look like they could have been pulled from any picture book retelling of a story from China or Japan that was published in the last half a decade. Then there was the drawing of the garden that looked more like a concept sketch than a finished illustration.
When I request review copies for books, I look for books that I think I’ll enjoy. I wanted to enjoy this one–but I just couldn’t. There was too much that didn’t work. So in the end, I give it 1 out of 5 stars, because I just did not like it.
You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.