Saludos todos! This week we are celebrating Earth Day with two wonderful books, which I will be reviewing side by side. The first book, The Patchwork Garden/ Pedacitos de huerto, written by Diane de Anda and illustrated by Oksana Kemarskaya, is a bilingual, fictional picture book that tells the sweet and inspirational story of a young girl who, with the help of her dear Abuela, learns to cultivate a garden and grow her own vegetables in the middle of her urban neighborhood. The second book, It’s Our Garden: From Seeds to Harvest in a School Garden, written by George Ancona, is a non-fictional book equally sweet and inspirational, that tells the story of a group of children right here in New Mexico who grew and took care of their own vegetable garden. Together these two books can inspire readers of all ages to grow their own vegetables in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner. And, just as Abuela says in The Patchwork Garden, “‘They taste much sweeter than the ones you buy in the store.’”
The Patchwork Garden/ Pedacitos de huerto, tells the story of a young girl whose wise Abuela teaches her how to cultivate a healthy and fruitful garden, despite some modern-day challenges: “‘I wish I could have my own vegetable garden,’ replied Toña, ‘but there’s nothing but cement around our apartment building.’” Abuela reassures her, telling her that all you need is a small plot of land– a garden can be beautiful, no matter how small. With this information, Toña realizes that there is a little patch of dirt behind the neighborhood church that might be suitable for her garden, so she goes to ask Father Anselmo for permission to use it, adding that he can take as many colorful, sweet vegetables as he’d like: “‘Ah,’ said Father Anselmo, thinking of the fresh salads and steamed vegetables, ‘beautiful and healthy.’” As Toña and her Abuela embark on their journey of organizing a plan for their garden, they enlist the help and support of the community, simultaneously teaching others about sustainable living and healthy eating, while also fortifying their community bonds.
Under Abuela’s guidance, Toña, along with her brother and father, start digging the dirt and preparing the soil for their plants. Along the way, readers will share in Abuela’s wisdom and learn some tips and steps for preparing a garden. When Toña goes to the store with Abuela to pick out the seeds for their vegetables, the cashier hands them a pamphlet with the nutritional information for their new crops, reminding readers yet again of the health benefits of growing your own vegetables, and including more produce in your diet: “The lady at the cash register handed Toña cards on small sticks with pictures of the vegetables she had bought. ‘This tells you all the vitamins you will get from the different plants in your garden,’ she explained with a smile.” As the family continues with their project, Abuela teaches Toña (and young readers) even more lessons on safe and healthy living, including how you should always wear a sun hat when gardening outside, to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays.
As the weeks go by, and Toña’s garden starts to grow (thanks to her after school ritual of watering the little seeds), more and more people start to notice the beautiful, colorful vegetables growing from the soft dirt: “‘I wish we could have a garden,’ sighed many of the children. ‘I wish we had a place for a garden,’ the parents sighed back.” But Toña explains to them that, although she was discouraged at first too, thinking that gardening was not a possibility for urban-dwellers like herself, it is indeed possible for anyone to grow a garden as long as they have just a tiny piece of land. Once again moved and inspired, Toña decides to help her discouraged friends. As she reflects on her Abuela’s beautiful patchwork quilt (another idea for a fun and creative project!), Toña decides to create a patchwork garden throughout her neighborhood, inspiring friends, neighbors and community members to use their little, vacant plots of land for gardens to create one big garden “quilt”. While this lovely conclusion shows readers how the ideas and initiative of one can inspire others and create a brilliant, collaborative project, it also opens the eyes of readers of all ages to the real, present-day challenges and innovation of urban agriculture. As more and more people live in urban areas, one important way to challenge both environmental change and degradation, as well as issues of food justice, is to find ways to make urban areas more green and ecofriendly, and also to give people living in urban areas easier access to food (especially healthy food).
In It’s Our Garden, we see how Abuela and Toña’s inspirational story can be actualized in real life, with another inspirational (but this time non-fiction) story about the students at in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who grew a large and plentiful garden right in the backyard of their elementary school. Ancona’s story is organized as a sort of ethnography for young children, explaining to readers what he observed and learned during his year spent shadowing this school and observing its garden chores. The book is composed of photographs of the children happily watering their plants, turning the soil, and harvesting their beautiful crops, as well as illustrations by the children themselves of some of their favorite plants.
Filled with great, technical detail, this book is a useful guide for teachers and parents trying to start their own garden with students or children. Ancona’s thorough observations outline many of the steps needed for both creating a fruitful garden and effectively engaging children in the process. Ancona also observes how some children use leaves that fall off the trees during the fall to make leaf prints and other works of art, providing teachers with even more ideas for fun projects to do with their students: “There are lots of things in the garden to write and draw about. An easel in the middle of the garden invites anyone to draw what they see or write down their thoughts and experiences. Some students use leaves to make leaf prints. Their art decorates the greenhouse and the outdoor classroom.” In addition, “The harvest becomes a chance for Miss Sue to quiz the students on the variety of crops the garden has produced. She makes a game of the quiz, placing the answers facedown on slips of paper under each fruit, vegetable, or herb.” This fun learning activity could also be especially useful for foreign language teachers, trying to teach their students new food vocabulary.
As in the story of Toña and her Abuela, this Santa Fe school garden becomes a place for community engagement and participation: “On special afternoons and weekends, the garden becomes a place where the school community gathers. Students come back with their parents, sisters, brothers, grandparents, and friends. They compost, seed, plant, transplant, weed, water, and dig. By now, the flowers are blooming and the beds are green. The garden is flourishing with so much care.” Even in the summer when school is out, the children and their families, teachers, and other members of the community gather to play and listen to music, make food, and enjoy the company of their neighbors.
For those interested in using these books in the classroom and teaching students and children about gardening, here are some additional resources:
Stay tuned for more great reads as we wrap up the semester and the end of the school year!
Images Modified from The Patchwork Garden/ Pedacitos de huerto: Pages 3, 6, 11, 14
Images Modified from It’s Our Garden: From Seeds to Harvest in a School Garden: Pages 17, 22