Last year we spoke to Katie Smith Milway about her first solo children’s book One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference, selected for the Spirit of PaperTigers 2010 Book Set; it’s great to welcome her back now to talk about her latest book The Good Garden: How One Family Went from Hunger to Having Enough, which promises to be equally life-changing and life-affirming as One Hen. The Good Garden is illustrated by Sylvie Daigneault and, like One Hen, is published by Kids Can Press as part of their superb CitizenKid series.
Katie is a partner at the Bridgespan Group, an advisory to nonprofits and philanthropy. She has written many books and articles on sustainable development and has coordinated community development programs in Africa and Latin America for Food for the Hungry International. She is also the co-author with her mother Mary Ann Smith of Cappuccina Goes to Town (Kids Can Press, 2002), as well as the non-fiction book The Human Farm: A Tale of Changing Lives & Changing Lands (Kumarian Press/Stylus Publishing,1994).
Katie lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts, USA.
In your interview with PaperTigers last year, while touching upon the then forthcoming The Good Garden, you said, “In an era of food crisis, any child can play their part in their home or school garden, or in supporting poor farmers through acts of giving.” How have you aimed at getting that message across in the book?
The Good Garden is based on true people and events, and portrays the life of a campesino family in Honduras. They, like so many small farmers around the world eke out barely enough to live on – in a good year – and are highly vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition, when weather or insects create havoc. This family’s life is transformed, however, when a new teacher, Don Pedro, comes to the village school and gets the family’s daughter, María Luz Duarte, to help him plant a school garden – which he not only uses to teach students their basic subjects, but moreover to teach simple, sustainable agriculture methods that they can apply using their innate human resources: their heads, hands and heart. Through the caring labor of composting, terracing the hillside, planting beans among corn to keep soil nutrients in balance, and even dotting the terraces with flowers that smell bad to bugs, students see their school garden thrive on land that they all thought was too poor to keep them going. María Luz and others bring the learning home to their farms, improve their crops and grow in confidence about taking their own produce to market as opposed to selling to unfair middlemen – called “coyotes” in Honduras – who scoop profits. The knowledge they glean in the marketplace triggers another cycle of learning and innovation. Most importantly, the way the family shares what they have learned – passes it forward – ultimately transforms village after village.
So on one hand, kids see many acts of giving within the story – from teacher to student, from student to family and from family to family. At the back of the book, however, we offer practical ways that kids can help local food banks and community gardens, or give to international organizations like World Vision or Heifer International that provide seeds, tools and farm animals to families that need them. On our website www.thegoodgarden.org, kids can learn more and join a national food drive.
What else do you hope children will find inspirational in the book, which is based on the true story of Honduran teacher Don Elías, who had a profound affect not only on his pupils, but also on the whole community, through spreading his practical knowledge of what was needed to create sustainable farmland?
I hope kids will feel empowered to apply their heads, hands and hearts to any problem to help themselves and others. And I especially hope The Good Garden interests them in combating world hunger – ideas for action are listed at the back of the book. I also hope we see even more school, community and family gardens sprouting up – so kids can identify, if only in a small way, with the billions of poor in our world who live off the land, and so they can experience the satisfaction and nutrition of self-grown produce.
As I was completing The Good Garden manuscript in spring 2009, two of my kids got interested in planting a vegetable garden, and so we’ve had a miniature farming experience ourselves. The kids worked their tails off planting, watering and weeding. They harvested corn, Brussels sprouts and cucumbers, but bugs and shade killed most of the peppers and tomatoes. This summer, Brendan (15) and Mary Kate (12) expanded the garden for maximum sunlight and planted marigolds to repel the bugs. We’ve had great peppers, tomatoes and eggplants, but a varmint got through the fencing and decimated the corn patch. All to say, we have learned how good home-grown food can be, but also the tenuousness of growing it. We would starve without groceries!
The Good Garden has only been out for a few months but have you already heard about schools using it as a springboard for their own projects?
Absolutely. Here are a few anecdotes: (more…)