The Children’s Book Review Interview in partnership with Laura Smetana, author of My Love for You Is Like a Garden
In this interview, author-illustrator Laura Smetana talks to us about My Love for You Is Like a Garden, a joyful picture book that celebrates unconditional love with bold, watercolor collages of garden scenes. She is also the author of Ice Cream with Grandpa: A Loving Story for Kids About Alzheimer’s & Dementia (illustrated by Elisabete B. P. de Moraes), which was winner of a Northern Lights Book Award, and Little Squiggle’s Lake Adventure, which she co-authored with her son, Stirling Hebda.
When she isn’t writing or painting, Laura can be found talking to kids at school author visits, gardening in her sunhat, and spending time with her family outdoors. Laura lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and son. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Downers Grove Artists’ Guild.
Let’s begin our conversation with the title, My Love for You Is Like a Garden. What does it mean? And where did the idea of comparing unconditional love with a garden stem from?
Laura Smetana: The idea for the book came to me during the pandemic. During that time, I spent a lot of time gardening. Since we were under stay-at-home orders, we couldn’t get together in person with family and friends. But when I was in my garden, I was reminded of their love and all the stories behind each plant, flower, and tree—the lilac bush from my dad that now blooms in his memory, tiger lilies from my mom’s yard that reminded me of summers with my grandparents, hostas from my mother-in-law, black-eyed Susans from my sister, a rose bush my family gifted me on Mother’s Day, and an apple tree my son picked out with his grandpa just to name a few.
Every garden is filled with love, and the ways unconditional love can present itself reminded me of a garden. Love can be cheerful, love can be fierce, love can be tender, love can bloom with pride. As I spent more time in my own garden, I started to notice the personalities of each plant—the tiger lillies seemed fierce, the grass was tender, the roses looked proud. The idea blossomed from there, and that’s where the idea of comparing unconditional love with a garden came from and how the title, My Love for You Is Like a Garden came about.
Would you be open to sharing your story in which the garden you planted during the COVID pandemic needed rebuilding?
In June 2021, I started the first watercolor washes for the collages for My Love for You Is Like a Garden on my deck. Little did I know, later that night an EF-3 tornado would pass through our community, leaving a trail of destruction in our neighborhood, including damage to our home and the homes of many of our neighbors—many of which were left uninhabitable and are still being rebuilt—roofs torn off, trees on homes, windows missing, walls ripped from their foundation. We were lucky we weren’t hurt and could remain in our home throughout the repair process, which took a year to complete. In addition to the damage to our home, the tornado wiped out a wall of trees and a garden I had planted during the pandemic.
Over the next year, while working on the collages for this book, and repairing our house, I worked on replanting my garden and was reminded of all the love shown by our neighbors, family, friends, and strangers in the aftermath of the tornado—those who helped clean up debris, removed fallen trees and branches, tarped our roof, brought meals while our power was out, and helped with repairs over many, many months. There were also neighbors, friends, and family who brought flowers and plants from their own gardens to help us replant ours. We also received a tree from our local arboretum as part of their effort to help replace the hundreds of trees that were lost. They are now part of the stories that make up our garden, and each day when I look out the window I am reminded of their love and kindness.
How do you feel this devastating experience has shaped you as a writer moving forward?
The process of rebuilding after a tornado is a long, complicated, and often frustrating experience. Many days we would take one step forward, only to go two steps back the next day. In the weeks after, many people asked if the hole in our roof, hole in the kitchen wall and other repairs had been fixed yet, and were surprised to hear how long it was taking. It took four months of navigating insurance, documenting damage, getting estimates, and working with contractors before any repairs even began, and thankfully the hole in the wall was fixed just before winter arrived!
We learned to take things one day at a time, one step at a time, and started celebrating each repair and each step forward. We even had a going away party for the hole in our wall, which we had taped a garbage bag over to keep the cold air from coming in and had drawn a smiling face on it. This mindset of taking things one day at a time has helped me as a writer too. Books take a long time to create from idea to launch, and are full of many small steps along the way. I have learned to be more patient, break tasks into smaller steps, and to celebrate milestones, big and small, along the way.
The artwork you created is very eye-catching and, in some ways, reminiscent of the famous Eric Carle’s work. Will you talk us through your process of creating your vibrant, watercolor collages?
Thank you, that is very kind of you to say! I find inspiration all around me—in the bold colors in nature, art museums, and of course, in the wonderful works of children’s book creators. One of my favorite mediums is watercolor and I find such joy in letting my creativity out onto the page. The first step in my process involves creating watercolor washes in the colors needed for each element in a spread. If it is nice out, my favorite place to paint is outside on my deck surrounded by flowers, trees, and birdsong.
Once the washes are dry, I press them under a large book to keep them flat. Next, I sketch the full-size illustration onto scrap paper—usually my son’s old homework assignments, which makes it easier for me to tell which side is the front and which side is the back. Then I carefully cut each element out of the sketch and trace each piece onto the back of the corresponding watercolor wash.
Next, I cut each element out of the watercolor washes and arrange them onto a large sheet of bristol board, where they will be glued into place. Sometimes it takes a few days to complete a collage, but sometimes it takes several weeks or months. On my website, readers can get a behind-the-scenes look at how I created the monarch butterfly collage for the book.
Children will delight in finding ladybugs hidden throughout the pages. I love this fun concept because it gets kids poring over the details of the art. What inspired you to add this element? And how many ladybugs are there to find?
Finding the ladybugs hidden in the collage illustrations is really fun! When I read the book to kids, I always enjoy the moment they first discover the ladybugs appear on multiple pages. Then there is such anticipation at each page turn and delight when they find each one. Initially, I didn’t plan on having any ladybugs. But after I finished the grass collage, I felt like something was missing and decided to add a ladybug crawling up a blade of grass. I had painted extra ladybugs, so I played around with adding them to other spreads. I thought it would be a fun, interactive element. I asked my son for his opinion, and he agreed and had fun finding them too. The ladybugs can be found in almost every spread. In total, if you count the ladybug on the cover and in the glossary, there are 17 ladybugs to find. At least that was what I counted!
Do you have a favorite spread from within the book?
That’s such a hard question because they all bring me joy. But if I had to choose, one that I really love is the watering can with the hearts flowing out. That’s the first spread that I worked on, and I’ll tell you the story behind it. The night of the tornado, the winds swept away an old green plastic watering can that my dad, who had passed away the year prior, had given to me. He had used it for many years to water his garden, and when he moved into an assisted living facility where he would no longer have a garden, he gave it to me. From that point on, whenever he came to visit me, he used that watering can to water the plants in my garden. I inherited my love of gardening from him, so that watering can was very special. In the days after the tornado, my husband got me a beautiful, blue-green metal watering can and it became the inspiration for the watering can in the book—and to me it is a symbol of love, healing and hope.
I love that you’ve also included a glossary that provides the names of each plant and animal featured throughout the pages. What’s your favorite plant or animal featured in the book?
All of the plants and animals featured were inspired by plants and animals in my own garden and surrounding community. Not all the plants and animals are identified in the text, but I wanted to give kids the opportunity to learn the names so they could identify what they see in their own gardens. I love the unique personality and beauty that each plant and animal brings to a garden—even the squirrels who often dig up my flowers! But if I had to choose, one of my favorites is the monarch butterfly. We have a lot of milkweed in our yard and a variety of other native plants to help support the monarch population, so we always get excited when we see monarch butterflies passing through. As for flowers, I have always been fond of roses, but this past year I planted a lot of black-eyed Susans and marigolds. They are just so joyful!
Kirkus Reviews gave you a starred review. They said: “Endearing, engaging text pairs well with gorgeously executed illustrations for a joyful read.” That had to make you feel pretty good. Am I right?
It did feel pretty good, in fact it felt awesome! I was really honored by the praise Kirkus Reviews had for My Love for You Is Like a Garden and I am incredibly grateful to have received a starred review. It’s my first starred review, so I definitely did a happy dance when I found out and I celebrated with my family with a special meal from one of our favorite local restaurants.
Who do you imagine reading your book? And how might they add extension activities to make the most of their reading experience?
I imagine families reading My Love for You Is Like a Garden aloud with their children, teachers reading it to their students as part of a unit on gardens or similes, librarians sharing it for storytime for Valentine’s day or to welcome spring, and new parents using it to foster a love of reading. Some extension activities for My Love for You Is Like a Garden include:
- planting a seed and watching it grow
- taking a walk in a garden, park, or nature preserve
- going on a garden scavenger hunt
- reading outside or having a picnic with a book
- creating a collage inspired by nature
- sketching plants, flowers, and animals
- visiting a botanical garden, arboretum or plant nursery
There are so many possibilities! To help children, families, and educators make the most of their reading experience I created an Activity Kit that’s available on my website. It includes coloring pages, guided collage art activities, a garden color scavenger hunt, a plant observation journal, drawing and writing prompts, a word search, and more to support continued exploration.
My Love for You Is Like a Garden is for all ages though! It is the perfect way to say, “I love you” and makes a great gift for anyone you love. I can also imagine adult children giving it to their parents for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or Valentine’s Day as a way to share their love. In fact, I’m planning on giving a copy to my mom, and I hope she feels loved whenever she reads it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about My Love for You Is Like a Garden, yourself, or your writing?
I’m working on another watercolor collage book about fall at the moment that will include leaves from a variety of trees. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m looking forward to sharing more about it soon!
About the Book
Written and Illustrated by Laura Smetana
All Ages | 38 Pages
Publisher: Flying Cardinal Press | ISBN-13: 9781737140962
Publisher’s Book Summary: With bright, watercolor collages, My Love for You Is Like a Garden celebrates unconditional love with vibrant garden scenes that will delight fans of Lois Ehlert and Eric Carle. Perfect for baby showers, bedtime read-alouds, or anyone you love!
Say “I love you” with this charming picture book families will love reading together over and over again. Bold, colorful illustrations of flowers, butterflies, and animals will inspire readers of all ages to explore the natural world—and maybe even plant their own garden. Children will delight in finding ladybugs hidden throughout, and a glossary provides the names of each plant and animal featured. A beautiful book to share with a child, parent, or anyone who means the world to you!
My Love for You is Like a Garden Activity Kit – Free Download
Buy the Book
A Friends and Family Offer
If you’ve already purchased a copy of My Love for You Is Like a Garden, head on over to Laura Smetana’s website to receive two free downloadable 8×10 watercolor collage art prints:
–Print 1 – My love for you is like a garden
–Print 2 – My love for you flows freely
This interview—Laura Smetana Discusses My Love for You Is Like a Garden—was conducted between Laura Smetana and Bianca Schulze. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Gardening, Laura Smetana, Love, Picture Book, and Unconditional Love.