The power of appreciative words: “Mishan’s Garden,” by James Vollbracht & Janet Brooke
“The greatest gift you can ever give another is to see what is best and unique about them.”
This morning I stumbled downstairs, bleary-eyed, having got home late after teaching a class the night before. My six-year-old daughter gave me a running hug and a huge smile. She’s naturally affectionate, but I suspect there was an ulterior motive, because a few seconds later she came running back to me with Mishan’s Garden in her hands, asking that I read it to her. And so, I did.
Mishan is the titular heroine, a young girl who lives in The Village Above the White Clouds, where her father is the innkeeper. Misha is a special girl, whose birth was accompanied by the song of a white bird — a song so sweet it seemed to unite heaven and earth.
The land around The Village Above the White Clouds is too cold and barren for anything to grow. The barrenness is metaphorical, since people there say it is not a place where people belong. But Mishan’s father predicts that she will cultivate a beautiful garden of hopes and dreams.
Mishan dutifully plants seeds in the cold, infertile soil, but those are not the seeds that are to grow. Instead, it is the seeds of goodness in the villagers’ hearts that Mishan is to cultivate, watering them with her kind and appreciative words.
When an argument breaks out in the inn, Mishan asks a worn-out old soldier to intervene and prevent violence. He says he’s too old and weak, but Mishan convinces him that he still has strength, like an old tree whose boughs offer shelter. And so the old soldier asserts himself and puts a stop to the fight.
She tells an arrogant and rich merchant that he is like the village stream, bringing life to all who are in need. Her kind words inspire him to be generous, and we see him giving alms to a beggar.
She offers kind words to the village children, whom she compares to wild flowers, and to the young girls, whose talk about the beauty of others perfumes the air like the scent of lilac flowers.
Lastly, she tells a white lie to an angry woodcutter who has come to the inn looking for his son, whom he regards as a lazy good-for-nothing. She praises the woodcutter’s wisdom in coming to the inn, saying that it is wise to know that there is a time to work and a time to rest and dream, like the vine that grows by day and bathes in the moonlight by night. The woodcutter not only accepts his son’s need to rest, but asks him what his dreams are.
But Mishan is still waiting for her garden to grow. And distraught that her seeds have not germinated, she becomes seriously ill. But although her literal garden has failed to blossom, around her kindness is blooming in every heart, and the villagers run to help her. The birdsong so beautiful that it seemed to unite heaven and earth is heard once again, and the villagers see Mishan’s garden, filled with beautiful flowers, vines, bushes, and trees.
When people think of the village now, they think of it as a special place where everyone not only belongs, but where every person has a “special place and their own special dreams.” And those who come to the village in search of their dreams hear the song of the white bird, and feel encouraged to keep on with their searches.
My daughter loved the book, and I enjoyed reading it to her. The story is charming, and open to many interpretations. Does Mishan die toward the end? Is the flourishing garden we see her vision of heaven? Why does she really become ill? Is it because she lied to the woodcutter? Does the white bird’s appearance at Mishan’s birth and possible death suggest that Mishan is some kind of bodhisattva — a being reborn in order to help others? I rather like all the ambiguity, which allows for much discussion and exploration with children.
Janet Brookes’ watercolor (?) illustrations are very beautiful, simple, and give a good sense of a non-specific Himalayan culture and landscape, with bare craggy mountains and fluttering prayer flags. I especially enjoyed the sensitivity and love expressed in the faces of Mishan and her father.
James Vollbracht’s storytelling is poetic, evocative, and beautifully illustrates the power of appreciative speech.
Mishan’s Garden is 30 pages long, and is the perfect length for a story at bedtime — or for reading before breakfast!
As well as being a regular book review, this post is one of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness series. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.