Monday, April 22, 2013

Celebrate Earth Day With Esme Raji Codell's 'Seed by Seed'

We love Earth Day around here, and there's no better way to invest in the planet's future than sitting down with a child and reading a powerful book. In honor of the occasion, we reached out to the lovely Esmé Raji Codell, whose non-fiction picture book Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John "Appleseed" Chapman (Greenwillow Books, 2012) is a must-have for every classroom and every family with a green hue. Illustrated by Newbery Award winner (and clearly multi-talented) Lynne Rae Perkins, this is a book with a dynamic duo at the helm. (Take one look at the gorgeous embroidery work illustrating Chapman's trees, and you'll be bowled over.)

Seed by Seed tells the story of John Chapman, a man who grew apples about 200 years ago. At first, readers might wonder why the world needs another telling of the Johnny Appleseed tale, why we should even bother thinking about a Massachusetts farmer whose life seems part fact, part fiction to begin with. But Esmé makes a convincing case that, in our hyped-up, complicated world, John Chapman's simple philosophy is more important now than ever: He lived by example.

Question: The story of Johnny Appleseed is a familiar one, but your take on it is fresh and compelling. What made you choose this particular story to write?

Esmé Raji Codell: I chose this story out of a teaching place in my heart. There are quite a few Johnny Appleseed books out there, and very good Johnny Appleseed books to boot, but I found that for me personally, none of them foot the bill for what I wanted to share about my hero. I was an inner-city kid who found a lot of inspiration in the story of Johnny Appleseed, so I wanted to write a Johnny Appleseed book that an inner-city kid could read and think, I have something in common with this person, even though he lived a long time ago, even though he might have a different skin color than I have, even though he lived in the country and the woods.

So I wrote the book exactly the way I teach about John Chapman in the schools of Chicago, breaking down his life into five footsteps he left for us to follow:

  • Share what you have.  
  • Use what you have.  
  • Respect nature.  
  • Make peace where there is war.  
  • You can reach your destination by taking small steps. 

When children see this sort of synopsis of the main idea of a person’s whole life, they think: I can follow in those footsteps right now…in fact, sometimes, I already do! The model can also be used with any picture book biography. Read any picture book and ask, “What footsteps did this person leave that I could follow?” Makes a hell of a bulletin board. I also chose this story to explore the idea of legend and truth, fact and fiction. I think discussing the difference is especially germane nowadays, and important to practice as a citizen, and Seed by Seed offers that opportunity.

Q: You're a prolific author who writes to a variety of audiences, from preschoolers to middle-grade readers to teachers and parents. So why a picture book? Is there an author-audience connection made in reading aloud to children that differs from other genres?

ERC: For this particular book, I had a picture book in mind because history is very abstract and can distance the reader from the subject. Pictures draw the reader in, using visual cues to help the readers easily tune in to what’s recognizable or in common between the past and the present, and make the differences beautiful and interesting. I think that’s why picture book biography is possibly the strongest genre in children’s literature right now; it uses the idea of art and the idea of using a book for information both to maximum effect. I think Lynne Rae Perkins, the illustrator, did a wonderful job with this; she turned it into a kind of a “time travel” experience, which is what reading can be.

You’re asking how reading aloud picture books is a different experience than reading other genres? Well, for one, it’s a lot faster than a chapter book! There’s a more immediate reward and sense of completion and success, feelings that contribute to more reading and lifelong reading. That’s another reason I imagined Seed by Seed as a picture book; I wanted readers to connect quickly and viscerally. I think picture books are also especially important because kids nowadays are exposed to more visual media than any generation before. So the more we show children picture books and talk about them across the grade levels, the more we are preparing them to negotiate signals they get from the modern world…even if the subject is a man who lived over two hundred years ago.

Q: Authors can often get tangled up when trying to weave in a "message" to readers. But Seed by Seed works so beautifully because you seem to let John Chapman's message speak for itself. What do you hope readers take away from the book? 

ERC: Empowerment. Everything about Johnny Appleseed’s story is about using resources and recognizing what you have…not only material things, but also the people around you, what you believe, the stories inside of you. Everybody has these. In the act of planting small seeds, John Chapman was able to change the landscape of the nation. I hope readers use the book as an occasion to reflect on one small, consistent thing they can do every day that makes a difference in our country, and recognize that they don’t need money or power to begin. For me, the one small thing I can do every day that can change the nation, that’s read-aloud! But everyone has a different seed to plant. That’s why the book ends with the question: “what seed will you plant?” Your turn. You can do it.

Q: As a school librarian by day, author by night, you are immersed in a world of books and the power of written language. What do you hope readers take away from your body of writing?

ERC: Wow, what a question. A brilliant independent bookseller named Deb at the Reading Reptile in Kansas City once synopsized my writing as being about little girls working very hard to be good people. I think, more broadly, that’s what my books are about: people who are trying to do the right thing and actualize their best selves, whether they are teachers, parents, little girls, witches, basketball players, or orchard farmers. It does take a lot of work, sometimes. I hope in the course of experiencing my writing, readers laugh a little, feel someone else’s feelings as their own, or decide something is possible. And/or. Actually, now that your question made me spell it out, I guess these are the goals of my teaching, too. Teaching is a really big part of my life, and probably my writing is an extension of teaching for me. This kind of leads into your next question…

Q: Can you talk about your creative process. How do you choose your next project? Does it come from a void you see on a library shelf? Or does it come from a child you engage with at the library? What drives you to want to start that next book?

ERC: The start of my process comes from being a reader. When I look at a bookshelf, I don’t just see bound paper, I see rows and rows of authors and artists trying to share something with me. It’s like in every book, the author or illustrator has made a little gift of a piece of themselves: like a little prism through which I can peer, and see the world through someone else’s eyes or mind or heart. In this way, books are always presents (even if sometimes you want to return or re-gift the present). What could be lovelier?

Authors and illustrators must be very nice, to go to all that trouble to take that part of themselves and put it in this accessible, hopefully joyful and rather vulnerable form. As a reader, I can reciprocate by receiving the gift graciously. Not saying nasty, flippant things on the Internet (like authors don’t have the Internet, seriously?! We know who you are), accepting or rejecting the ideas in the book civilly, reading carefully, appreciating the effort of many people who worked together to make something. That’s all that's expected of the exchange, I think.

But anyone knows, it’s better to give than to receive, even when it’s not Christmastime. So I guess the urge to create a book to add to that shelf is the same impetus that one might have in giving a present to someone else, especially after you’ve gotten so many lovely gifts yourself.

First of all, I have to imagine my audience. That makes me want to make something lovely and try my best for you. Then, what is the best thing I have that I could give you? Depends on who you are. If you are a new teacher, it might be a chance to look in my private diary, Educating Esmé, so you feel less alone while you do your very hard work. If you are a parent or teacher who needs to equalize education in a country that is socioeconomically “separate but equal,” I guess I would give you the power of trade literature, How to Get Your Child to Love Reading.

If you were a little girl who wants to grant her own wishes instead of waiting for wands or princes, I’d give you Diary of a Fairy Godmother. If you are a preschooler who needs to laugh and likes to say “no!”  I’d give you Fairly Fairy Tales. If you were just starting school, I’d give you It’s Time for Preschool, and if you’re trying to survive the labeling and bullying that happens in schools, I’d give you Sahara Special or Vive la Paris. What drives me to write a new book for publication is seeing someone I love who needs a present, or sensing that something needs to be shared to make things you know that feeling?

For Seed by Seed, I wanted to share the life of somebody who inspired me, so you can be inspired, too, and so you could feel like you have enough inside of yourself to begin whatever work you need to do. I think what they all have in common is that I always have a teacher or a classroom in mind when I write. I read-aloud what I write, imagining the teacher who will read it aloud down the line. I imagine what questions or discussions might come out of what I write. I wrote a whole book, Sing a Song of Tuna Fish, to encourage classroom journaling; every first sentence of every section could be used as a writing prompt. Of course, the books don’t have to be read this way, but they can be, I make sure. I am very driven by fortifying the teacher and the child. I like both of them a lot and want to give them presents.

Technically, I wrote about my process in a pep talk for young writers at NaNoWriMo, and I used the theme of a seed there, too, so many years before this Johnny Appleseed book was published. I guess seeds take time to germinate.

Q: And what will we see next from you?

ERC: Oh, no you don’t! My high school English teacher told me, “if it comes out of your mouth, it won’t come out of your pen,” so I’m very superstitious about that. I have books and other writing in progress, I have to decide if they are for sharing when they are done. Meanwhile, I will be working hard at teaching in the Chicago Public Schools, which takes a lot of energy. Maybe as much as growing an apple orchard.


  1. Wonderful interview! I am in awe of Esme's talent and energy. Having taught in the public schools in Philadelphia, I am well aware of the level of commitment that goes into that hard but rewarding work.

    I always liked the story of Johnny Appleseed because he was a folk hero who did something small (that grew!)and peaceful in contrast to some other American folk heroes who did things large and wild.


  2. I think you'll like this retelling, Sheila. Esme has made it very accessible for young readers – and actionable. Thanks for commenting!