cover image The Topiary Garden

The Topiary Garden

Janni Howker. Orchard Books (NY), $14.95 (63pp) ISBN 978-0-531-06891-5

Initially published a decade ago in Howker's story collection Badger on the Barge, this elegantly crafted tale devolves in the shadow of a topiary garden on the grounds of Carlton Hall, an English country home. Liz and her older brother are camping with their father when Liz encounters 91-year-old Sally Beck, whose face resembles a ""crumpled brown paper bag."" Smarting from a fight with her brother, Liz grumbles that she sometimes wishes she were a boy. In the intriguing tale-within-a-tale that follows, the old woman explains that she ran away from home at the age of 12, dressed in her brother's clothes, and became an apprentice gardener at Carlton Hall, where she cared for the topiary garden. For years, Sally (known as Jack) kept her gender a secret-until accused of impregnating her employer's maid. Howker's writing is crisp and her imagery striking, but the book's themes (not to mention the text's tiny print) are too sophisticated for readers on the younger end of the suggested audience. Similarly, although Browne's detailed art is impeccably rendered-and contains some mysterious images-picture after picture of the topiary garden may become tiresome for children. Ages 7-up. (Mar.)