Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table
written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
illustrated by Eric-Shabazz Larkin
afterword by Will Allen
Readers to Eaters, 2013
My second passion in life after books and reading is sustainable agriculture and organic farming. There are a few good books for children on this topic, but I’m always delighted when a new, inspiring true story finds its way to my library. In this case, pro basketball player Will Allen chose to focus on building a community garden in Milwaukee, reclaiming urban land with poor soil and little life in it, involving the neighborhood in growing fruits and vegetables, and sharing his own love of working together to bring healthy food to the table.
The author, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, has written a number of books that people cherish, including Snowflake Bentley, The Water Gift and the Pig of the Pig, and Chicken Joy on Red Bean Road. In the afterword, she confesses that she grew up on a dairy farm in Maine and didn’t like to garden, any more than Farmer Will Allen did when he was a boy and his family depended on that garden for food.
There’s so much depth in this picture book biography that I asked Ms. Martin if she would talk with me about her book.
Q: How did you and your publisher, Readers to Eaters in Bellevue, Washington, find each other?
A: It was a Minnesota connection. Lauren Stringer and Anne Ylvisaker had heard of Philip Lee’s Readers to Eaters Books and they knew I was working on a biography of farmer Will Allen. They suggested that I send him the story.
Q: Was this a new editor for you at Readers to Eaters? How do you adapt to working with a new editor?
A. Philip is wonderful to work with. He is very committed to each book that Readers to Eaters publishes and told me only recently that in order to edit a book he needs to do research on the subject, too. He suggests where he thinks a story might be strengthened but does not insist on specific solutions.
Q: Were you able to meet Will Allen in person? If so, how long ago? If not, did you interview him for this book?
A: I met Will Allen in 2012, after I had been working on the book for quite a while. I had sent him questions by e-mail and talked with his assistant, as well as read many articles about him and watched many interviews done by others. I also had time to read his own book The Good Food Revolution (written with Charles Wilson, published by Gotham Books), before our book went to press and that was very helpful.
Q: How do you choose what not to include in a picture book biography?
A: Good question. I think the answer has to do with keeping to the story line, keeping the focus clear. For example, in Snowflake Bentley the story line was Wilson Bentley’s love of snow crystals and his dedication in photographing them. He also was a great fan of Mary Pickford and organized a community band. But I felt that those two facets of his life would detract from the story of his love of the beauty of nature. And I only had a thousand words. The greater part of writing that book was figuring out how to pare the story to 1,000 words.
For Farmer Will Allen I wanted to focus on his goal of growing good food for people who otherwise would not have it. That has been the driving force in his life since the 1990s, so he made the writing decisions easy. No Mary Pickford. No community band.
Q: In the text, you talk about “the power of one person with vision.” Several of your books feature people like this, such as Snowflake Bentley and The Chiru of High Tibet. Do you look for stories of people like this or do they come looking for you?
A: I think they find me. I do love stories of people who have a passion and pursue it. So I’m always glad when another such story finds me.
Q: “fresh vegetables
were as scarce in the city
as trout in the desert.”
Much of this book reads like poetry. Is that a conscious construction on your part or does your mind naturally write in poetic form?
A: I love the notion of coming across a trout in the desert. It would be a rare experience. I am not conscious of trying to be “poetic.” But I do try to really inhabit a story before I start to write, somehow live inside the world of the story.
Q: You’ve published one book about gardening before this, The Green Truck Garden Giveaway (1997). Are food and healthy communities a strong concern of yours?
A: I grew up on a dairy farm. Food was our sustenance and our recreation. We never took vacations, but it seemed like a holiday when we had peas and new potatoes or wild raspberry pie, made from raspberries my mother had picked that morning. We were very aware of the flavor of the food we were eating. So food has always been important to me. And we had it in abundance. It pains me now that about one-fifth of the children in this country experience hunger at some time during their childhoods. I want to march in the street about it.
Q: Do you grow your own garden now? If so, what did you harvest this past year?
A: We have a small garden in our back yard and we belong to a community supported agriculture group so we have lots of fresh vegetables in the summer and freeze as much as we can. In our garden this year we grew Swiss chard, tomatoes (from seeds I saved in the summer of 2012), cucumbers, potatoes, zucchini, and a few bell peppers. In pots we grew basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, and parsley.
Q: Do you enjoy cooking? Do you have a garden produce recipe to share with us?
A: I do enjoy cooking. And I grew up with potatoes. I could eat them three times a day. One of my favorite things to do with potatoes is very easy.
Cut them in about 1-1/2 inch pieces. (If they are small potatoes, no need to cut.) Toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast them in the oven at 375 for 20-30 minutes. We made these potatoes for a book party we had for Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table and kids just loved them.
Q: Some of my favorite books are included in the Resources in the back of your book. How did you pull together the material for the “back matter”?
A: We searched for books that would make it easy for kids to grow things, no matter where they live. And of course we wanted to provide resources for more information on worms. And we all know that a lot of adults read kids’ books, so we felt comfortable including a couple of books written not just for kids. And who can write about gardens and community and not include Seedfolks?
Q: Is there an unexpected bit of feedback you can share that you’ve received about the book?
A: This is not exactly feedback, but it was pleasing to me to learn that an urban farm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (about 20 miles from where I live) is there because of Will Allen’s Growing Power Farm in Milwaukee. A person in Cedar Rapids who loves to garden heard of Growing Power and wanted to do something similar in Cedar Rapids. So now there are vegetables on what used to be a vacant lot. And that person is planning to take a course at Growing Power this winter to become a better urban farmer.
Have you wondered why children are hungry? Do you know children who have scant knowledge of where their food comes from? Do you want to do something to help?
Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s book about Farmer Will Allen is a starting point to read out loud and share with your community. It will inspire you, it will move you, and it will help you understand that you, too, can do something about hunger and the quality of your food.