“Celia Planted a Garden” is a delightful children’s book which serves as an elegant, unpretentious celebration of poet and horticulturalist Celia Thaxter (1835-1894), who was once at the center of the 19th-century literary and artistic salon on the Isles of Shoals. That rocky, low-lying archipelago, shared by Maine and New Hampshire, is nicely illustrated (by Portlander Melissa Sweet) at the outset of the book.

In 1839, Celia and her parents, Thomas and Eliza Rymes Laighton, moved from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to White Island, where Thomas became a lighthouse keeper. He soon purchased the adjacent Cedar, Hog, Malaga and Smuttynose islands. Later, the family built a hotel on Hog (now named Appledore Island) on the Maine side of the boundary.

The hotel drew an A-list of the era’s artistic celebrities – artists like William Morris Hunt and Childe Hassam; writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sarah Orne Jewett, John G. Whittier and William Dean Howells; also the publishers James and Annie Fields. It was Hawthorne, in 1852, who lovingly dubbed Celia the “Island Miranda,” referring to the guileless leading female character in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

“Celia Planted a Garden” opens with this paragraph: “When Celia Laighton was very young, she lived on White Island, where the rocks were gray and white, and the waves that broke on the rocks were gray and white, and the seagulls that rode the sea were gray and white.” The words don’t rhyme, but the language throughout the book is rhythmic.

Into that dichromatic landscape, Celia, craving more color in her life, plants a garden. “Ever since I could remember anything, Flowers have been like dear friends to me,” she says. As she grows into a young lady, she transforms the landscape with her colorful garden. “The very act of planting a seed in the earth has in it to me something beautiful,” she says. The book pairs her actual words, taken from her extensive writings, with prose by writers Phyllis Root and Gary D. Schmidt. The illustrations are charming and joyous – bright flowers and birds against the quiet grays and blues of the island landscapes.

“Celia Planted a Garden” traces her childhood. At 12, Celia and her family move to nearby Appledore Island, where her father builds a large hotel and Celia plants a new garden. And it follows her into adulthood. At age 16, she marries her tutor, Levi Thaxter. The couple raise a family on the mainland in Massachusetts. Levi was not fond of the sea, so Celia spends her creative energy writing popular poems about the Isles, painting flowers on china and, in the summer, returning to her beloved garden, hotel and literary friends.

Celia grows older. She and her husband separate, and she moves back to the islands. She ages, among the flora, birds and insects she loves, but she retains her childlike joy in the natural world. The book ends with the line, “Until next spring.”

The authors include an endnote about Celia’s life, a two-page timeline and a thorough bibliography of nonfiction and fiction works by and about Thaxter. It is, perhaps, formidable but also wonderful information for children who want to know more. As a final bit of historical continuity, we read that in 1977 the Shoals Marine Laboratory restored Thaxter’s garden, just as she’d described and mapped in “An Island Garden.” Her work carries on.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History,” He is working on a history of the Maine Historical Society. He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.

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