The Secret Kingdom: NEK Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art

by Barb Rosenstock (Author) Claire A Nivola (Illustrator)

Reading Level: 2nd − 3rd Grade

A 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor Book

The incredible story of the world's largest visionary environment: the Rock Garden of Chandigarh, kept secret by outsider artist Nek Chand for fifteen years.

After the partition of India in 1947, Nek Chand Saini settled in the city of Chandigarh, with nothing but stories brought from his homeland. Dismayed at his stark new surroundings, Nek began collecting river rocks, broken glass, and cracked water pots found on the roadside. He cleared a section of jungle and for seven years he stockpiled odds and ends. They were castoffs and rubbish to everyone else, but to Nek, they were treasures. He began to build a labyrinth of curving paths, mosaics, and repeating patterns: his very own tribute to the winding village of his youth, a hidden land of stories. Nek kept his kingdom secret for fifteen years, until a government crew stumbled upon it and sought to destroy it. But local fans agreed in awe: the Rock Garden had to be protected. Author Barb Rosenstock introduces readers to the outsider artist's stunning creation, while Claire A. Nivola's illustrations bring to life the land's natural beauty and the surreal world Nek coaxed from his wild landscape.

School Library Journal

Gr 2-5—The story of artist and visionary Nek Chand, who turned a story of exile and social division into a beautiful artistic tribute to India and its people. Chand was raised in the village of Barian Kalan and spent his childhood in the company of ancient stories, laughter, planting gardens, and roaming freely in the jungles and open fields. After the great partition of 1947, Chand fled as a refugee from his home in Pakistan to his family's new home in India. Heartbroken, he dreamt of a place he and his family could truly belong. Eventually he found a hidden jungle on the north end of Chandigarh and began to create a wonderland of art from scraps, stones, rusty pipes, cracked water pots, and boulders. He revived the plants, built winding paths, and shaped the recycled materials into animals, sculptures, and archways. He kept it a secret for 15 years, until the government found it and threatened to shut it down. But the people of Chandigarh had fallen in love with the secret kingdom, and won the fight to preserve it. To this day, the kingdom remains the largest visionary art site in the world. Watercolor illustrations bring life to the vision of Chand and kingdom of magic and imagination. VERDICT A captivating biographical narrative, this book is an ideal choice for expanding any visual arts—focused picture book collection.—Natalie Romano, Denver Public Library

Copyright 2017 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

Publishers Weekly

As a child in his poor village in South Asia's Punjab region, Nek Chand found every opportunity to create art from salvaged materials. Partition in 1947 forced Chand to leave his home for the modern Indian city of Chandigarh, "a sharp-edged city of colorless concrete." Seeking to create a home more like the one he left, Chand constructed a hidden forest sanctuary from stones and discarded objects, which he would keep secret for 15 years. Though Chand's kingdom was eventually discovered, the community embraced his artistry, despite ongoing threats to demolish it. Chand's quiet resolve comes through strongly in Nivola's understated paintings, and a dramatic gatefold reveals photographs of his kingdom today. Rosenstock's gratifying story conveys how art has the capacity to revitalize and restore. An author's note shares additional details about Chand, his creation, and the ongoing struggle to preserve it. Ages 7-10. Author's agent: Rosemary Stimola, Stimola Literary Studio. (Feb.)

Copyright 2017 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

Review quotes

...this biography is valuable for its sheer novelty. Delicate watercolor illustrations bring it to life with texture and detail, and a large gatefold photograph of the actual Rock Garden is a special treat.

Rosenstock weaves the story of folk artist Nek Chand Saini and the magnificent secret garden he built in Chandigarh, India...Compelling, delicate, and spare, this book brings both artist and garden to life.
—Kirkus Reviews

Watercolor illustrations bring life to the vision of Chand and kingdom of magic and imagination. A captivating biographical narrative, this book is an ideal choice for expanding any visual arts-focused picture book collection.
—School Library Journal

A lover of true stories, author Barb Rosenstock (The Camping Trip That Changed America) clearly revels in Nek Chand's remarkable journey from village farmer to world-renowned folk artist. To comprehend the phenomenal scale of his achievement requires visuals, provided here with artistic accuracy and charming detail by Claire A. Nivola (Planting the Trees of Kenya).
—Shelf Awareness Pro

Rosenstock's narration gracefully integrates Chand's early village experiences with their embodiment in his multi-acre built world, and Nivola's airy illustrations are complemented by a closing double foldout photomontage of Chand's wonderland of found materials.
—Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

This stunning picture-book celebration of folk artist Nek Chand, creator of the Rock Garden of Chandigarh in India, offers a moving depiction of the power of art...When readers are treated to a breathtaking, photographic gatefold spread of the real Rock Garden of Chandigarh, the sight makes plain why Chand's community rallied to preserve his work in the face of government threats to destroy it.
—The Horn Book
Barb Rosenstock
BARB ROSENSTOCK is the author of the Caldecott Honor Book The Noisy Paint Box; Vincent Can't Sleep; Through the Window; and Mornings with Monet, all also illustrated by Mary GrandPré, as well as many other books. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband, sons, and two big poodles. Visit her at

ERIKA MEZA is the illustrator of Salsa Lullaby by Jen Arena. She was born in Morelia, in the Mexican state where monarch butterflies go for the winter. She grew up in awe of the phenomenon, and carried the image of the butterfly as a piece of home when she moved to Paris to follow her dream of becoming an author and illustrator. Her themes are born out of the exploration of her migrant essence, her bittersweet relationship with change, and her attachment to innocence and curiosity. She now lives in London. Learn more about Erika at or on Twitter at @ErikaDraws.
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Candlewick Press (MA)
Publication date
February 20, 2018
Orbis Pictus Honor Book

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