World Earth Day: Interview with Katie Smith Milway, author of The Good Garden

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, 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: Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. invited me down from Boston and María Luz up from Honduras (her real name is María Cecilia Vasquez, and there is a documentary about her real story) to speak to their middle school and reinforce their existing program to provide vegetables to a local soup kitchen. Across the street from Sidwell Friends, the Phoebe Hearst Public School, which joined forces for María Cecilia’s visit, read The Good Garden to their entire school during what they called “Good Garden Fridays” throughout the fall, and then they went out and worked in their school garden. Meanwhile, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a school called Edward Everett is planning to use The Good Garden as a springboard for helping a local homeless shelter to build their own vegetable garden. So the connection between the book and school gardening appears strong – and it’s helping schools move beyond their own gardens to collaborating in the community.

Can you tell us about the real María, who was the inspiration for The Good Garden‘s 11-year-old protagonist María? What was her reaction to finding herself in your book?

Last summer, we made a short documentary of one of the campesino families I profiled 18 years ago when writing the biography of Don Elías Sanchez, the Johnny Appleseed of sustainable agriculture in Honduras, and basis for the teacher Don Pedro in The Good Garden. We filmed the Vasquez family, a heartwarming father/daughter story of reviving poor land, as portrayed by the Duarte family in The Good Garden. The real María Luz is named María Cecilia. She has grown up and become an important community development worker in her province, looking after more than 300 campesinos (at the age of 21!) and connecting them to training and fair credit. She is the first in her family to obtain a high school diploma and a profession outside of subsistence farming. And she would tell you that a key difference between my book and her life was that it took about 10 years to transform their family farm, not just a season. During those 10 years she was up before dawn working the farm, then off to school in her one dress, then back to do chores and cook, then homework in the one notebook per year her father could afford her – when she wrote on the last page, she would memorize the lessons, erase and reuse it! It was such a privilege to be able to tell “the rest of the story” in the film – and to underscore the “girl effect”: when you invest in girls in developing countries, you really do invest in a family and community.

You met Don Elías in Honduras in 1992. What was it like to spend some time working alongside him? In what ways has he inspired the way you live your life?

Oh yes! In the summer of 1992, I spent time in Honduras living and working on Don Elías’ training farm alongside campesinos, and visiting former trainees – men and women – on their farms to see the fruits of their learning. Elías was a short, feisty, former-campesino-turned-teacher who had helped about 30,000 farming families — rural and urban — to food security. I’m basically a black thumb, but even I learned how to get a seed to sprout using my God-given abilities – thought, hard work and caring about what I was trying to do. I heard from campesinos, again, and again, that as they learned to nurture their land, and saw the results, they became more interested in nurturing their families and their communities – sending their kids to school, getting them vaccinated, investing in running water and sanitation and so forth. There was a spiritual aspect, too – as farmers got into synch with Creation many grew reconnected to their faith community. Alleviating hunger and thirst is really a first step in alleviating poverty of the body and soul. It’s hard to strive for education, entrepreneurship or enlightenment if your belly is empty. Don Elías, who was not particularly religious, had a credo: “Ideas unshared have no value!” It’s a principle that one can apply to all of work and life.

What was it like going back to Honduras recently and witnessing the differences in the land and the people?

Elías passed away in 2000, but I had the chance to revisit his training farm in Honduras in 2005, and to spend time with his widow, Candida, with his protégé Milton Flores, and several other characters from a biography of Elías that I had written some years before. Incredibly, his farm’s terraces held in the teeth of Hurricane Mitch, which wracked Honduras in 1998, and I walked those original big, earthen steps. It was really wonderful to be back and see both what had changed (buildings and capacity) and what had stayed the same – the approach to empowerment, the simple technologies and those sturdy terraces.

In your guest post for Cynsations recently you said that Don Elías’ starting point was always to “plant a seed in campesinos’ heads: the ideas that they could solve a lot of their problems using their innate resources: their heads, hands and hearts” – this seems particularly meaningful in light of
The Good Garden‘s focus on the soil and planting seeds to grow a plentiful supply of food. Do you think it’s possible to have the one without the other?

I think it is hard to succeed in anything without belief in the mission and your ability to accomplish it. Those seeds of ideas that Don Elías planted created hopes, dreams and, most of all, confidence to achieve them. That was his “magic”. I would see campesinos shuffle into the training room on Day 1 of a program and be looking Don Elías in the eye by Day 3, telling him their new ideas. He was a study in empowerment.

Having first heard about Don Elías when you were writing your non-fiction book The Human Farm, did you know straight away that you wanted to create a children’s story out of it?

Just as you say, inadvertently, the book is the fruit of about 18 years of thought and labor! I researched the life of the teacher – Don Elías Sanchez – in 1992 just after the Earth Summit, for a biography-based story of healthy community development: The Human Farm: A Tale of Changing Lives & Changing Lands . Then, in 2005, just as I was finishing up the manuscript for my last kids’ book, One Hen, the protagonists in The Human Farm came out with a Spanish translation and asked me to review it. As I reread paragraphs on Don Elías’ early life – when he was a rural school teacher and taught farm kids through building school gardens – something just clicked! I saw the setting for a great children’s story to communicate lessons of food security and how kids can play a role in addressing global hunger.

The One Hen website has already been a phenomenal success. Can you tell us a bit about the website and how you hope it will work alongside the book?

The website offers resources around each word in our motto “Learn, Play, Make a Difference!” Under the Learn icon, we offer schools free, downloadable lesson plans that relate the topic of food security to social studies, science, community service and other subjects. In addition, it has a Meet Real People tab where we have biographies of many subsistence farmers from around the world, with each one exemplifying a tool or approach they adopted to move from hunger to having enough. Under Play, we currently have an interactive quiz and we’re seeking funding to build out a virtual farm game. We also have forms for schools to fill in if they want to order a free Good Garden Chutes and Ladders, to use in the classroom (the game will release this fall). Finally, under Make a Difference, kids can register as a class, club or family to join our annual food drive where we try, as kids across the nation, to make a big difference for food availability.

How does The Good Garden fit in with/compliment the other books in Kids Can Press’ CitizenKid Series?

Well, it addresses a new topic for the series: food security. But in a sense, it also builds on two earlier books: Tree of Life and If the World Were a Village, which respectively lay out biodiversity and how the resources divide up around the world.

The theme for this year’s World Earth Day is “A Billion Acts of Green“. How do you hope The Good Garden can contribute to that? Do you have any special plans for World Earth Day?

I hope The Good Garden reminds kids how much power they have to trigger big things through small but consistent acts, whether it’s planting a tree a year, or planting an entire community garden with classmates or neighbors, and serving a harvest meal to those in need. As for the Milway family project, we are going to plant our vegetable garden and pick up trash in our neighbourhood park!

And what about for the future, regarding any new book projects?

I do have another book in the works that will introduce kids to primary health care and how they can build healthier communities and help stem disease abroad. It’s now in illustration with my One Hen collaborator Eugenie Fernandes, and due out Fall 2012.

One Response to “World Earth Day: Interview with Katie Smith Milway, author of The Good Garden”

  1. Corinne Says:

    For any of our readers in the Salisbury, MD, USA area here is an event that ties into Earth Day and might be of interest: Art, Children’s Literature, and the Environment: Art and Photography from Green Earth Book Award Recipients~ Apr 8 – May 15, Salisbury, MD, USA