In Joseph Kuefler’s new picture book, The Digger and the Flower, beauty is in the eye of the bulldozer.
“Kids love diggers, they love trucks,” says Kuefler, author-illustrator of Beyond the Pond and Rulers of the Playground, “but I was hoping to approach the sub-genre a little bit differently. I wanted it to be a much more emotional story, something that allowed [kids] to see that it’s okay to feel and to love and to care for things and to cry.”
Digitally composed in an elementary style with a primary palate, Kuefler’s artwork conveys the humanity of heavy machinery. Kuefler—who, by day, works in branding and design for venture-backed tech startups—focused on the eyes, eyebrows, and grills of big trucks Dozer, Crane, and Digger, the book’s protagonist.
“My number-one goal was to try to inject an amount of humanity into these vehicles,” he says, “and it was all in the eyes and the shape of the grill. You’ll noticed that Dozer and Crane’s grills are either vertical or more trapezoidal...so Digger is the only one who has a grill that tapers toward the bottom. That simple change makes their faces feel either slightly more stern or stoic, or slightly more joyful, in the case of Digger.
“Dozer’s got a really flat, stout eye,” he says, “which only enhances the sternness of his grill. he can’t emote and he’s got a much larger brow. Crane’s got that really, I’d say ‘sharp’ grill, and less expressive eyes. Their eyebrows are almost always vertical or downward facing. Digger’s the only one who gets a much broader range of brow shape and position.”
Digger also gets a much broader worldview. At the book’s beginning, he, Dozer, and Crane are coworkers clearing lots for building skyscrapers in a booming city. Kuefler writes:
“‘Let’s hoist,’ said Crane.
“‘Let’s push,’ said Dozer.
“‘Let’s dig,’ said Digger.
“Together they built tall buildings for working.”
Crane and Dozer revel in the development potential of construction sites but gentle Digger soon finds beauty of a different nature. One day at work, he finds a solitary blue flower growing in an empty lot.
“He had found something in the rubble,” Kuefler writes. “‘Hello there,’ he said. The flower was tiny, but it was beautiful.
“He watered it when its leaves looked dry. He shielded it on windy days. And just before he switched off for the night, Digger sang the flower a bedtime song,” he writes.
When Crane and Dozer finally discover the flower, the latter cuts it down before Digger can protest. Crying oil tears, Digger collects the seeds and speeds beyond the city limit, finding a safe spot in the green hills to cultivate their growth.
“I’m in a phase in my life where I’m really trying to take accountability for, understand, and adjust my actions,” says Kuefler, who lives in Minnesota with his wife and children. “I want to do what I can to be a better steward [of the land], to care for the world that I love so much.”
The Digger and the Flower helps cultivate an understanding that each reader (no matter their age) can take significant steps (no matter how small) toward caring for and improving our environment. “Short of Maryann’s abandoning Mike Mulligan for a life of conservation and gardening,” Kirkus writes in a starred review, “one couldn’t hope for a better tale of rebirth and regeneration in the face of unchecked industrial sprawl.”
“The message of this book is one small beautiful action of any form can change the course of your life,” Kuefler says. “One action can make your world more beautiful, and that’s a pretty special thing.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.