Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, winner of the Newbery Award in 1989 for his book Joyful Noises: Poems for Two Voices, could be placed on the same shelf with Jacqueline Woodson's masterpiece, feathers. Both books are beautiful examples of people making connections with each other, bridging gaps and getting around barriers. And, both are slim volumes that manage to pack intensity, compassion and life into roughly 100 pages.
Fleischman notes in his after word, "From Seed to Seedfolks," the word "seedfolks" is another word for ancestors. As Florence, one of the thirteen characters in the book who shares a story, says of her great-grandparents who walked from Louisiana to Colorado in 1859 and were the first black family in the county the settled, "My father called them our seedfolks, because they were the first of our family there." "Seedfolks" can also be a name for the characters in the story who turn a vacant lot in Cleveland into a community garden with the seeds that they plant.
The book begins with the voice of Kim, a young girl who's father died eight months before she was born. On the anniversary of his death when her mother and sister, both of whom have memories of him, are mourning him, Kim wonders, "When his spirit hovered over our alter, did it even know who I was?" She decides then to go across the street to the garbage filled vacant lot and plant six lima beans so that her father, who had been a farmer before he immigrated from Vietnam, will notice the beans growing and thus notice her. As she does this, she is watched by Ana, and elderly neighbor who at first thinks she is up to no good but then, when she discovers what Kim is up to, crosses the street to tend to the shoots while Kim is at school. Every story has a sense of poignancy and the creation of the garden and the nurturing of plants has significance, in one way or another, for every person who voices his or her story in this book. The garden changes everyone and, as every narrator notes, one of the ways the garden changes them is by introducing them into each other's lives.
The diversity of the voices is one of the aspects of Seedfolks that makes it so powerful. While the characters share their history and talk about their homelands or their parents' homelands, one of the most interesting commentaries comes from Sam, a seventy-eight-year old who worked for thirty-six years for different groups, "promoting world govrenment, setting up conferences on pacifism, raising money, stuffing envelopes," and now, in his retirement is like a fisherman mending torn nets, only with people. It is Sam who observes the unplanned segregation that the gardeners have created in their choice of plots and the fences and walls that go up as people gardeners to feel the need to protect their land. Sam says, "God, who made Eden, also wrecked the Tower of Babel, by dividing people. From Paradise, the garden was turning back into Cleveland." However, through the conscious efforts of Sam and unconscious efforts of the other gardeners walls are torn down and helping hands as well as swapping of vegetables and flowers turns the garden back into Paradise as the people work together to maintain what they have started.
Some narrators are adults, some are children or teenagers. Maricela, a sixteen year old Mexican girl who is pregnant, believing herself to be hated and vilified by all because of her race and her condition, talks about how she does not want to be pregnant and wishes her baby would die inside of her. This is probably the most intense part of the book and some parents may want to read her chapter before letting their children read it so a discussion can follow. All the fifth grade classes at my son's school read this book and wrote a book report on it. I asked my son how he felt about reading Maricela's story and he said that he was a little bit uncomfortable but that he didn't think about it too much. I felt comfortable with him reading her words because, like I suspected and he confirmed, he did not dwell on her story. Many cities have chosen it as their "One Book, One City" title in an effort to get the community reading and talking about the same book. The state of Vermont and the cities of Tampa, FL, Newburgh, NY and Racine, WI, which gave away free books and encouraged readers to leave them in public places for others to find and read, documenting the trajectories of the books at bookcrossing.com, a very cool website that encourages people to leave books in public places then write about what they leave and what they find, have chosen Seedfolks as a "One Book" title.
The character who struck with me the most is that of Mr Myles, an African American who's story is told by his nurse, a British woman named Nora. Having experienced a stroke that has left him unable to talk or walk, Nora notices that Mr Myles just sits, disengaged from the world all day long. She reminds his often that "we mustn't stop living before our time," and pushes his wheelchair through the neighborhood streets whenever he is in her care. Despite this, she feels that his interest in the world has declined. That is, until the day that they stop across the street from the garden and Mr Myles raises a commanding arm, insisting Nora push him into the garden. "Over the narrow, bumpy path we went, his nose and eyes working. He was a salmon traveling upstream through his past." I think that this has to be one of the most evocative, beautiful lines of writing I have read in a while and it allowed me to connect immediately with this narrative. Mr Myles sparked interest and Nora's creativity and dedication lead to a plastic garbage can filled with dirt in the garden - a planter that sits right at the perfect level for Mr Myles to reach his hands in and plant some seeds.
I think Seedfolks is a very important book that all children and adults should read. I have the sneaking, sinking suspicion that it is also one of those kind of books that children will not gravitate to on their own. I was tempted to add the label I have slapped on a few other titles, "Books that Your Kids Should Read But Probably Won't Unless You Read With Them," but I feel a little more hopeful than that for this book, especially knowing that it is being chosen as a "One Book" title. But, just in case I am wrong, please take an hour out of your day to read this amazing book as a gift to yourself and your children. Once you have read it I guarantee that you will be able to speak enthusiastically about it to others and spark an interest in them as well.
Paul Fleischman, who's father is children's book author Sid Fleichman, winner of the Newbery Medal for hisbook The Whipping Boy is the author of several excellent picture books including one of my all-time-top-five-favorites, which is also about gardening, among other things. Weslandia, illustrated by the fabulous Kevin Hawkes, who's website is very cool. Wes, a unique, inquisitive outsider who doesn't like sports or get his hair cut into a mohawk like the rest of the boys his age spends his summer vacation in the garden cultivating a seed he has found. He finds ways to feed, clothe and shelter himself with the leaves and fruits that this plant bears so he moves into his garden. Once there, he creates his own language and way of telling time, as well as building himself stilts to get around on. He also discovers that the juice from the fruit he is growing works as a mosquito repellent and he becomes very popular in the neighborhood. This book is available in paperback and NOT TO BE MISSED! Like Seedfolks, the book tells an important story in a very engaging, entertaining way.