Amanda and the Magic Garden
By John Himmelman
This story is dedicated to Dad and Blue-footed Boobies, Talking Mongeese*, and the many other stories he read to his sons.
*I know know it's "mongooses".
From School Library Journal
Grade 1-2 A troll tricks a witch into growing gigantic vegetables. When the forest animals eat said mega-vegetables, they become gigantic, and a string of forced unfunny incidents ensue. The story is boring and strained. For example, a huge skunk is asleep near the witch's cottage, so the witch cleverly suggests that the other oversized odorless mammals sing lullabies to keep the skunk from awaking. Very witty. A 20-foot squirrel gets caught in the witch's chimney, and a bear swells up to gargantuan proportions inside her house. The witch restores the animals to their normal size by growing miniature vegetables (in a few hours) and saves one miniature carrot for the mischievous troll's second visit. Alas, this book does not warrant a second reading. The color illustrations are garish and grating. They feature irritating bugged-out eyes on the troll and the animals. Barbara Peklo Serling, Oneida City Schools, N.Y.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc.
John Himmelman's Stories' Stories
I was now doing this full time. I left my job as a carpenter in September of 1986 and will never forget the feeling on my drive home from my last day at work as a carpenter. I'd call it fear-twinged elation. I remember actually being a little light-headed.
I had written a couple of other stories about Amanda and this is the one my editor wanted. It was inspired by watching Betsy working in our vegetable garden. We were still living in East Haven, the house we were building was now a home. We had hired my brother Jim to build me a studio off the main house. It had a wonderfully work-distracting view of the wooded landscape.
And we just learned Betsy was pregnant. It's safe to say we were hoping for a girl because it was a girl - Lizzie, born in July!
The story: Greenmoss the Troll gives Amanda some magic seeds that will grow into giant vegetables. When the animals eat the vegetables, they grow into giant animals, that side effect providing for vexing consequences.
I was drawing these trolls since college. I'm not sure where they came from, but sometimes artists just like to draw certain things for who-knows-why. That large, jutting lower lipped face appeared in many incarnations in my sketchbooks - trees, people, monsters...
The trees and bushes were still just billowy fluffy things, the different shading between them used to suggest depth in the scene.
And there's that ladybug on her hat, a quiet, non-credited background player throughout the book.
The picture on the left is probably my favorite in the book. It was the image that first came to mind when the story was conceived. I was having trouble making the watercolors do what I wanted, though. I had zero training in this medium in college and was learning by doing. The colors were always too blotchy for my taste and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to smooth them out. In later books I would accomplish this with the addition of Prismacolor pencils. It wasn't until many years after that Betsy, after watching me struggling at the drawing table, leaned over and said, "Stop fighting the watercolors." That clicked! They were the perfect words at the perfect time! But up to that point, every painting was a battle with that medium.
Speaking of battles, man, that roof was a big one! It's unfortunate, because I liked the rest of the picture, especially the fox trying to hide behind the tree. But oh how I hated that roof.
"Amanda and the Magic Garden" came out in March of 1987. There was no Internet on which to read reviews, or email, for that matter. The publisher would make copies and mail them to you. On July 27, 1987 I received the worst review any of my books ever received up to then and to this day. Why does the date stand out in my head? It was the day my daughter Lizzie was born. I'd just gotten home from the hospital, and picked up the mail. And there it was. A review of the book in School Library Journal by someone named Barbara Peklo Serling. I highlighted some of the more painful wounds it (I) received.
That date was both one of the happiest in my life, and miserable. I felt gut-punched. Did I do something to this woman at some point in the past? Regardless, I hated her guts, and it took me a while to get over it.
Now, I share it when I give talks, as it's such a bad review, it's kind of fun. Time does that, I suppose. And most importantly, I stopped hating her a very long time ago.
Oh, and Publishers Weekly actually gave it a very nice review, here, which I didn't see until many years later.