Today is a momentous day for young Juan. After years of hearing about his father’s landscaping business, Juan will come along to help for the first time, armed not only with gardening supplies but also with a sketchbook and drawing tools.
During this perfectly ordinary but splendidly memorable day, Juan assists Papi and another worker, Javier, as they rake leaves, mow lawns and prune bushes. He accompanies them to a gardening supply store, where they select plants and flowers for a client. He also joins them at the dump, where the branches and other waste they have collected will be turned into mulch. Finally, the budding artist meets Papi’s new clients, listens to their vision for their overgrown yard and sketches out a design for their future garden. Inspired by his father, Juan is learning how to “make the world more beautiful.”
In a note at the end of John Parra’s heartfelt picture book Growing an Artist: The Story of a Landscaper and His Son, the author-illustrator reveals that Juan’s story is autobiographical. Working with his father as a young boy inspired Parra to consider a career in landscape architecture and design, though he ultimately took a different path and trained as a fine artist. A photograph of Parra and his father accompanies the note, and the book’s landscaping blueprint endpapers contain a designer’s mark for “Del Parra Landscape Constr.”
Parra incorporates Spanish words and phrases into the text and touches on the importance of Latin American migrant workers to the landscaping industry. It’s an underappreciated job that requires creativity and demanding physical labor. An early scene delicately depicts Juan’s growing recognition of such prejudice: Juan waves to a classmate who is neighbors with one of Papi’s clients, but the boy “looks away and pretends not to see me,” and Juan’s “heart sinks.”
Honoring the great pride that Parra’s father took in his landscaping work, Parra’s characteristically vibrant and finely detailed acrylic illustrations in Growing an Artist depict people and plants with equal affection and respect. The way that Papi points out natural beauties to his artistic young son is tender and moving, and a scene in which he gently lifts a branch to reveal a hidden bird’s nest is especially lovely.
Growing an Artist is a love letter to sons and their fathers, to work done with one’s hands and to making the world more beautiful, no matter what tools are used to do so.