Imagine a vacant lot on a street filled with old tires, a broken refrigerator, even a discarded couch. The name of the street is Gibb Street in Cleveland, OH. Imagine an apartment building with forty eight apartments filled with people from various ethnic backgrounds. The people are strangers to each other until one spring day a nine year old Vietnamese girl takes the time to plant six lima beans in the earth behind the refrigerator. She plants those six lima beans into six holes in the ground so that she can feel closer to the memory of her father, who was a farmer in Vietnam. The girl’s name is Kim, and her voice is the first one that readers encounter in Paul Fleishman’s Seedfolks (Joanna Cotler Books, 1997), illustrated by Judy Pedersen. Kim’s act of planting those lima beans ushers in profound changes for the neighborhood.
Ana, an elderly Rumanian woman, is the next person we meet. When Ana notices “a little black-haired girl” hiding something in the lot, she becomes suspicious, and with her cane, walks out to investigate. Ana’s suspicion turns to admiration when she discovers the beans beginning to sprout and enlists the help of her neighbor, Wendell, to keep an eye on them and make sure that they grow.
The first-person voices continue in each chapter: Gonzalo, Leona, Sam, Virgil, and six others. Little by little, they each plant something until the ugly, abandoned lot becomes a beautiful community garden. The neighbors, now friends, have planted seeds of vegetables and flowers as well as seeds of hope. Their lives are transformed in the process. Wendell explains that he cannot change many things about his life, but he can help change an empty, forgotten lot into a garden.
The flap of the book says “Ages 10 and up.” I would recommend it for ages nine and up. The message is clear that it takes time to care for and create a garden, just as it takes time to build relationships that turn neighbors who are strangers into a community of friends.
I remember when I was weeding a small patch of earth one evening a few springs ago when I was thinking about Seedfolks. Just then, a neighbor I had never met came out of her back door to do some weeding of her own. We smiled and introduced ourselves. I told her how much I admired her peonies. She told me how much she had enjoyed gazing at my orange and yellow tulips.
I told her how I had planted the bulbs in the winter, and it seemed like a miracle when they came up in the spring. She said that was the way she got through the winter—thinking of her colorful flowers that would come up in the spring gave her hope.
In Seedfolks, Amir, from India, explains how the purple eggplants he grew made people come over to look. When the people looked at the beautiful eggplants, they began to talk and get to know each other, and this led to blossoming friendships.
Books can expose us to people we have never met and places we have never been. They can inspire us to involve our children in creating beauty and community with our own hands; whether we plant seeds in the earth, in flowerpots, or when we plant seeds of kindness towards others, we are bound to be transformed, and in turn, transform our world.