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April Backseat Book Club Pick: 'Seedfolks'

Mar 26, 2012

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Author Paul Fleischman says he was inspired to write Seedfolks after stumbling across an article in a free local newspaper about a psychotherapist who used gardening as therapy.

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Most of us have heard the phrase "it takes a village" to refer to the idea that many hands from many places are usually needed to get things done. Our next book could well be called it takes a garden. Now that spring is in the air, the next selection for NPR's Backseat Book Club is a small book with a big message: Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman.

The story explores what happens when a little girl decides to plant a few lima bean seeds in a rundown vacant lot filled with garbage and vermin. Her name is Kim. She's 9 years old, and she yearns to have some kind of connection to her dead father. Her mother and sisters can find comfort in memories of his face and the way he used to work the land when he was a farmer back in Vietnam. But Kim has no such memories because she was born just eight months after he died.

So on a cold April morning, she heads toward that bedraggled urban lot, clears away the dirt with a little spoon and plants her six lima bean seeds with the hope that they will spring to life and somehow connect her to the spirit of her dead father. That simple act of hope and desperation sets off a chain of events in a Cleveland neighborhood filled with immigrants from all over the world. The garbage-strewn lot that everyone ignored suddenly becomes a focal point ... and eventually a community garden that blooms with all kinds of possibilities.

The story unfolds through the eyes of 13 different characters in a series of short vignettes. In that sense, Seedfolks has a "house that Jack built" quality. One thing leads to another, drawing in new people and, in some cases, new dramas or dilemmas.

An older Romanian neighbor named Ana sees Kim planting the seeds and assumes the child is up to no good. Ana goes digging in the lot expecting to find contraband and instead discovers the seeds — and a strong dose of regret. She replants the seeds but wonders how they could ever survive, since Kim planted the seeds far too early. April in Cleveland can still be mighty cold. When Ana shares those worries with a neighbor named Wendell, he swings into action, determined to watch over the bean sprouts and plant a little garden of his own.

Day by day, neighbors who ignored the urban lot filled with trash are drawn to the space with their own mission. A Guatemalan family sets up a plot to find a taste of home. A 78-year-old man starts a contest to identify a source of much-needed irrigation. A cranky neighbor finds a good outlet for her constant umbrage when she picks a fight with the city to clear trash from the lot. The characters and their stories are like one big neighborhood quilt — their names are Sae Young, Amir, Curtis, Marciela, and their roots reach out in many different directions.

Author Fleischman says he found inspiration for Seedfolks close to home; his own parents were dedicated urban farmers. "I grew up in a house that might have had the only front-yard cornfield in all of Los Angeles," he says. Fleischman wanted to write a book about the healing power of plants and putting one's hands in the earth, and he had always imagined writing a book for children about immigrants trying to find their way in America. For him, the theme is personal. Two of his three children were adopted from Mexico. The two ideas came together in this wonderful little book that is well-suited for adults and children and is perfect for a group read. In fact, dozens of groups and several cities have chosen Seedfolks for community reads, including Racine, Wis.; Tampa, Fla.; and the state of Vermont. Both Fleischman and his father, children's author Sid Fleischman, have won the Newbery Medal.

We hope you enjoy Seedfolks as much as we have. And we hope you take the time to send in your questions so we can include some of them in our upcoming interview with Paul Fleischman. (There's one thing you should know: Pay attention to sentence structure and grammar. Fleischman is one of the founders of the grammar watchdog group called The Society for The Prevention of Cruelty to English. We don't want any of our young Backseat Book Clubbers to get red flag citations!)

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