April showers bring May flowers, and in this case they bring us a selection from the garden for NPR's Backseat Book Club. Each month we ask young people to read a book along with us, and for this month, our pick is Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman.
Seedfolks takes us to the heart of the city, specifically the city of Cleveland, and a neighborhood that has seen better days. It's filled with people — mostly immigrants — who live in close proximity but barely share more than an occasional "hello." They all stay in apartments surrounding a vacant lot that, in the course of this story, is transformed from a smelly junkyard into a lush community garden.
That garden in Seedfolks is like a big green magnet. It pulls in immigrants who yearn for vegetables they can't find at local markets. It beckons the wounded who find a reason to live as they watch life sprout from little seeds. And it calls out to the elderly who find memories in the soil.
Author Paul Fleischman tells NPR's Michele Norris that he loved the idea of a garden that would help a fractured community grow toward each other, the way a potted plant reaches for the sun. Ugly as it may be at the beginning, that empty lot is the beating heart of his book.
"It's not a place that anybody had ever imagined a community garden," Fleischman says. "And indeed, the founder — a little girl named Kim — has no such plans herself. She just plants some lima bean seeds there in an attempt to connect with the father she never knew."
Each chapter of Seedfolks is named for a different character and told from his or her point of view. As their garden plots grow, their hearts grow bigger, and their world view expands. There are still hard times in this rough little neighborhood, but each eggplant and tomato is a little victory worthy of a shared celebration.
The entire sixth grade of Hardy Middle School — located here in Washington, D.C. — read the book, and the students had several questions for Fleischman. Backseat Book Clubber Kyra Bendal, 11, wanted to know whether any of the characters in Seedfolks were based on real-life people.
"They are," says Fleischman. "I should tell you that many people think that authors just cut and paste from real life into books. It doesn't work quite that way. Usually characters are changed, transformed, turned inside out. ... Look at Kim. She's a little girl from Vietnam. She's lost her father. I would seem to have nothing in common with her. But my own mother had died a few years before Seedfolks. A desire to make a connection with that person who has passed away is universal, and it came out in that story. I have connections like that with many of the characters."
The title Seedfolks does not simply refer to the work in the garden. It reflects a community bond. In fact, Fleischman says, the word "seedfolks" came to him before he started to write this book.
"The few words of a title are the hardest words for any author to come up with," he says. "My father used to offer my sisters and me $5 if we could come up with a title when he was stumped. And $5 back then was worth about $10,000 now. ... So if you have a great title, as crazy as it sounds, it's almost worth writing a book just to use it. It's like building a house because you have a lovely doorknob. But I had the word 'seedfolks.' I'd come across it in the course of researching another book. It's an old term for ancestors."
Fleischman's father, Sid, was, like his son, an award-winning author of children's books. He often read chunks of his latest projects to the family. Fleischman says there was no pressure to follow in his father's footsteps. But, he adds, his real education took place not at school but at home, as he absorbed the craft of writing from his father.
"We also had a hand printing press in the house," he says. "So I learned the whole visual side of language, setting type. I'm a very careful, slow writer, and I think a lot of that comes from the care required to be a hand-printer, where if something isn't spaced out enough, you take little slivers of brass or copper and put them between each letter."
The family had a printing press because Sid Fleischman was working on a book about a traveling printer, and parts of the book were absorbed into the household. "That's how we came to have chickens, as well — from an earlier book," Fleischman says.
But that hands-on approach didn't exactly work with Seedfolks. "Let it be known," says Fleischman, "I'm a terrible gardener. I'm an over-waterer." Fleischman adds that he's content going to the library and researching gardening. "Although doing it is good — that's how we ended up with the printing press and the chickens. There are things you learn from doing it that you're never going to learn from a book."
The book has been staged, read as readers theater, used with English-language learners, and chosen for countless school-wide, district-wide, and city-wide reads.
"The size of this slim volume belies the profound message of hope it contains."
--Christian Science Monitor
SEEDFOLKS FOR THE STAGE
With the cast of Soquel High's production in Santa Cruz, CA
Want to perform it? Contact Playscripts for scripts and licensing info. Please note: Filming without permission and online streaming of filmed performances are prohibited.
Its short length, multicultural cast, suitability for adults as well as children, and availability in Spanish have led SEEDFOLKS to be used in One Book programs around the country. What have communities done with it?
NEWBURGH, NY connected the book to a month-long multicultural celebration of words, art, and dance, with concerts and classes on everything from found sculpture to African drumming. The local newspaper serialized the book in both English and Spanish.
VERMONT used the book as its One-State One-Book choice. There were discussions, dramatizations, readings on Vermont Public Radio, and the participation of dozens of groups--from the Friends of Burlington Gardens to the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Project--in communities up and down the state.
TAMPA, FL gave away more than 15,000 copies of the book and used it in conjunction with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, encouraging citizens to volunteer in an array of community improvement projects.
RACINE, WI gave away copies of the book, encouraging readers to leave them in public places when finished, posting comments and following the book's journey via BookCrossing.com. Discussions in Spanish, a screening of Greenfingers, writing and virtual gardening at a women's prison are a few of the many activities that took place.
If you're using SEEDFOLKS in a community reading program, please let me know at email@example.com. I'd appreciate it if you'd also drop a line to the Library of Congress's Center for the Book, which keeps an online list of One Book programs. Their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you'd like help from HarperCollins, you can contact them at email@example.com. Click here to download HarperCollins' teacher's guide to the book.
Teachers at one of Life Lab's workshops
Does your school have a garden--or wishes it did?
If you'd like sage advice on starting or managing a school garden, check out Life Lab's cornucopia of resources. This nonprofit group based in Santa Cruz, CA works with school gardeners nationwide, offering videos, publications, webinars, and workshops that have helped thousands of educators bring gardens and farms into the curriculum. Their Food, What?! program gets high school students into the act, teaching life skills alongside gardening know-how. Highly recommended!
Translated as Semillas, SEEDFOLKS has been published in Spanish by Fondo de Cultura Economica. After being unavailable for a time, it's now back in stock and available for order.
With its brief chapters and immigrant cast, SEEDFOLKS has been used often with English-language learners young and old. Now ESL teacher Joyce Flager has created a multifaceted workbook to accompany the novel, one of many valuable ESL resources offered by JAG Publications. For a sample and more information, click here.
SEEDFOLKS is also now available as an e-book on all the usual platforms.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Where did the idea for SEEDFOLKS come from?
I wrote an essay called "From Seed to Seedfolks" that answers that question in detail. It's at the back of most editions and on this website here.
What research did you do to write it?
I looked for community gardens everywhere I traveled. I also visited some close to home, like the Homeless Garden Project (pictured) in Santa Cruz, CA, which teaches the homeless job and life skills along with gardening. Other topics I researched: Cleveland history, Ohio history, Asian vegetables, Haitian cuisine, earwigs, stroke victims, Korean immigration...to name a few.
Who's your favorite character in the book?
I have several. If I had to pick four, they'd be Kim, Gonzalo, Curtis, and Sam.
When I was younger I wanted to write music, not books. I was fascinated when I saw my first symphonic score. That's what I wanted to write, with all the parts carefully woven together. I didn't end up pursuing composition in college, but I did play chamber music and loved being part of a group. When I turned to writing, I found I could bring a lot of what I loved about music into books: rhythm, form, the pleasure of playing with the sound of words, and the camaraderie of chamber music. I AM PHOENIX and JOYFUL NOISE were verbal duets. BIG TALK contains poems for four. BULL RUN had 16 different speakers--my attempt at writing for a verbal orchestra. SEEDFOLKS was next, with 13 voices. A few years later came SEEK, a high school senior's autobiography told through 52 voices.
For writers, multiple points of view have many advantages. They make for variety and unpredictability--two crucial ingredients in good books. It's also dramatic to have more than one story line running at a time and to show the same event from different perspectives. To my knowledge, BULL RUN was the first novel for young readers with multiple points of view. Now the format is commonplace. I've also used it in plays like ZAP (which crams seven plays into one), and in the picture books GLASS SLIPPER, GOLD SANDAL and FIRST LIGHT, FIRST LIFE, which braid together many different tellings of the Cinderella and creation story from around the world.
Are you going to write a sequel?
I'm not a fan of sequels. I like the challenge of writing something brand new, and sequels are rarely as good as the original. But I did turn to the subject of immigration once more in THE MATCHBOX DIARY. It's a different book from SEEDFOLKS--a picture book for younger readers, telling one character's experience, set a century ago instead of in the present. The amazing thing is how little times have changed. Migrant work, the struggle for education, and the fight against prejudice are as present today as they were in my Italian characters' lives.
I probably spent four months or so researching and thinking out the story and an equal amount of time on the writing. That's often the way it is. The invisible side of writing is where the real work happens. I wrote the book in the pre-computer era, with a pencil in a notebook. I'm a slow writer. I typically work 8-10 hours a day and usually only get a page or two written in that time. But those pages are solid. The more outlining and researching you do beforehand, the less revising you have to do later. I write five days a week and sometimes more, sometimes long into the night. If things are falling into place and unexpected scenes are blossoming, what could possibly be better?
Is Virgil a boy or a girl?
It was a fluke that Virgil's chapter didn't contain a "his" or "her" to answer this question. Then again, because the name is strictly for males in my experience, I didn't foresee that the question would exist. Virgil is a boy--though in my stage version he got changed into a girl to help balance the genders in the cast. What is it with this character?
Are you a gardener? What else do you do besides write?
I like growing my own food, but that's been a minor hobby of mine. I've put much more time into sailing, string figures, papermaking, artwork using copy machines, hiking, and musical instruments of all sizes and shapes.