It shouldn’t be this hard. You walk to a biography section of a children’s room, any children’s room, and you start searching for biographies of living people who are not sports stars, actors, musicians or politicians. And you search. And you search. And after a while your eyes kind of droop and you feel a bit sleepy, so you tell yourself you’ll continue to search on another day. Don’t bother. I can tell you right off that finding biographies of contemporary people who don’t fall into the worlds of sports, entertainment, or politics is a fool’s errand. Average extraordinary people tend to be lumped in group biographies if anywhere at all. That’s part of what makes Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table such a rarity. Part biography, part paean to urban gardens and gardeners everywhere. The book is a beautiful tribute not just to its hero Will Allen but also to the right of every child to have access to good, healthy, cheap food. The ultimate picture book about muncha muncha muncha.
Actually, I’ll level with you. Will Allen really was a basketball player. At first anyway. Though he grew up in a family that grew most of its own food, he wasn’t a fan of the work. As soon as he could he left those Maryland fields for college and became a professional basketball player in Belgium. While over there a friend asked for some help digging potatoes and the next thing Will knew he was hooked. After moving back to the States he adopted six empty, abandoned greenhouses in Milwaukee. What followed was years of trial and error as Will worked to turn his lots into working gardens. With the help of the community (and more than a few red wigglers) Will didn’t just get those greenhouses working, but city garden plots around the country too. Now he speaks everywhere from Kenya to London, teaching people how to grow food for themselves. The good news? Will Allen sees things other people can’t. And “when he sees kids, he sees farmers”.
I think there’s a danger of adults falling into this belief that kids only want to read about other kids. Our memories of childhood may skew a bit, and when we think of books written for children, a lot of the time we assume that kids aren’t going to want to read about people too much older than themselves. Of course, as one friend of mine put it recently, “That’s what people who don’t interact with kids at all think.” It is far from the truth. Children love hearing about adults. Adults hold an allure of their very own. For a child, reading about adults offers them both distance (“I will never be that old”) and promise (“I could live that life”). But to write a book for kids about an adult that isn’t a household name (yet) you need a good author. Enter Jacqueline Briggs Martin.
Now Ms. Martin holds the distinction of being one of the very few nonfiction picture book authors to win a Caldecott Award for one of her books (Snowflake Bentley. Typically Caldecotts go to fictional fare. That’s not born out of any innate prejudice. It’s more that until recently there haven’t been great swaths of fabulous illustrated nonfiction to chose from. Ms. Martin’s books seek to change all that and Farmer Will Allen is a step in the right direction. As an author, Ms. Martin has never gone with expected topics, though in this particular case she’s showing her hand. You see back in 1997 she penned The Green Truck Garden Giveaway: A Neighborhood Story and Almanac. In that book she told the tale of two people who drive around in a truck giving away little “bucket gardens”. Clearly her love of gardening in unexpected places has only grown in the intervening sixteen years.
In Will Allen Martin translates her love of gardening into an honestly good story. In general, realistic lives aren’t tailor made for literature. Life is too messy. Too complicated. What Martin is capable of doing then is of plucking only the essentials from Mr. Allen. That done, she sets about talking about healthy food, a difficult topic if only because a lesser author would give in to the temptation to preach. We live in an era where fatty, salty, oily food is so much cheaper than food that is good for us. Fruits and vegetables are sold everywhere but they aren’t free. So while we talk about the rise in obesity levels in the United States, it just makes sense to talk about how economics affect access to healthy alternatives. And part of what makes Farmer Will Allen such a good story is that it draws that connection without getting anywhere near a soapbox.
If you had told me after reading this that this was illustrator Eric-Shabazz Larkin’s first book for children I would not have believed you. Indeed, I’m having a hard time believing it even after I looked up his biography. The fact of the matter is that even when a magnificently talented artist attempts their first picture book for kids, they usually have a hard time with the design and layout. The truth? Most of the time it feels like they’re phoning it in. Not Larkin. With ink and pen and markers (as well as some digital work for flair), the man constructs a life. He knows where to put the text and how to incorporate it into the images. Basketballs turn effortlessly into potatoes. The Statue of Liberty is pictured holding a bunch of beets and somehow manages to look imposing and impressive rather than downright ridiculous. There are color washes in this book that glow on the page and the typography (which I normally never notice) is magnificent. Now as to the question of accuracy, I suspect that Larkin didn’t do too much research in terms of Allen’s home life as a child. When we see little Will Allen standing in a child’s version of his customary blue sleeveless t-shirt and green baseball hat, we’re straining the edges of credulity. That said, the image is more representational than a strict history. I think I’m okay with it. Faux dialogue in nonfiction picture books tends to drive me nutty, but imagined childhoods? Personally it raises no red flags for me. You might feel differently.
I can tell you right now that Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table will not be shelved in my library’s biography section. Maybe you see that as a mistake, but for me it’s the only way to get the doggone thing into the hands of readers. The likelihood that a child is going to walk into a library anywhere (except possibly Milwaukee) saying, “I want a biography of Will Allen” is slim at best. The likelihood of a kid walking in saying, “I need a book on city gardens” or urban gardens, or composting, or gardening in general, is significantly higher. As a librarian, my job is to get this book into the hands of as many readers as possible. Fortunately, Martin’s topic and Larkin’s art combined with Allen’s story make this a sure-fire winner. We live in an era where food is falling under greater and greater scrutiny. Apply those standards to your child’s nonfiction picture book fare and Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table passes all the tests with flying colors. Fun and informative by turns, raise a carrot or cabbage in honor of this awesome dude and his equally awesome tale.
On shelves September 10th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- It’s Our Garden: From Seeds to Harvest in a School Garden by George Ancona
- Potatoes on Rooftops: Farming in the City by Hadley Dyer
- City Green by DyAnne DiSalvo
Other Reviews: From members of the International Reading Association’s Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).
Misc: Ms. Briggs answers some questions about the book including one where she casts Danny Glover in the role of Will (I’d go with Idris Elba myself)
Illustrator Eric-Shabazz Larkin discusses the book and pages through for you to see.