Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Now, those of you that know me know that I am all about Johnny Appleseed and have been for a long time. So I am especially pleased to announce the release/book birthday of my new picture book biography, SEED BY SEED: THE LEGEND AND LEGACY OF JOHN “APPLESEED” CHAPMAN, illustrated by the great and mighty Lynne Rae Perkins.

Tall buildings, stores, and parking lots.
Buses and cars speeding by.
Red lights and green lights and yellow lights and white lights.
Our country is hard and electrical and moving.
But it was not always this way.
Once it was a tangle,
A tangle,
A tangle,
Of roots and branches and wide tree trunks…
And in this quiet, tree-bough-tangled world,
The world before the cement was poured
And the lights turned on,
There lived a man of his time:
John Chapman, better known
As Johnny Appleseed…

He never drove a car
Or sent a basketball flying through a hoop.
He never acted in front of a camera.
He never wore a medal.
He grew apples, and offered them to the pioneers heading west.
But wait. So what?
A farmer. Why should we remember today,
More than two hundred years later,
And call him a hero?

Besides being a president of my own private chapter of the Johnny Appleseed Fan Club, I had an ulterior motive for writing SEED BY SEED. As an elementary teacher and a K-8 school librarian, I was having a really hard time finding a book about Johnny Appleseed that contained what I wanted to share about him. My go-to was Aliki’s charmer, THE STORY OF JOHNNY APPLESEED , which gave a straightforward story of Chapman’s legend, including clear pictures of covered wagons and straightforward text that allowed me to put Chapman’s life in a historical context (albeit with some explanation behind stereotypical book treatment of the Native Americans). I also love and use Reeve Lindbergh’s JOHNNY APPLESEED, verse flanked by helpful map endpapers. Let's face it, there wasn't any shortage of Johnny Appleseed books.

But what I was really looking for was a book that not only walked through the narrative of John Chapman’s storied life, but one that would make the legend of Johnny Appleseed relevant to the modern, urban readers in the Chicago Public Schools, the children with whom I was reading. The question wasn't "who was Johnny Appleseed?"  The question was, "Why should we care who he was?"  I wanted a book that made readers love Johnny Appleseed, be inspired by him and want to emulate his example, even over the distance of history. I had that experience, and I wanted to share it.  So the first thing I did in approaching SEED BY SEED was think, what is it about John Chapman that transcends time? What about him touches me in both a secular way and a spiritual way, and how can that been written about so it will touch someone else?

So I tried to write a book that mirrored what I teach. And when I teach about Johnny Appleseed, I distill the main ideas of his life into “five footsteps,” or ways he lived by example, which are enumerated in the book:

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

I use the idea of footsteps to suggest that Chapman laid a path for us to follow, both as Americans and as citizens of the world. Each footstep can be discussed, as they are in the book, in the context of Chapman’s biography, but they can also be discussed in the context of the child’s own experience. When has the child shared, or made do, or persevered, bit by bit? These relatable points make John Chapman a real person and a relevant model today, a mentor, a hero that belongs to them! I want children to see that, hey, it’s not just the people who we see on screens that can help to set us on our path. There are so many people in history that can do that for us.  Children can research and read about their own historical figures, and determine what “footsteps” they have left for us to fill. And as a teacher, who am I kidding? Johnny's Five Footsteps also make for a very nice bulletin board concept; I put one up every year. Post a link to a picture of your own original "Five Footstep" bulletin board in the comments section of this post by September 12th, 2012, and you'll be entered in a drawing for an autographed copy of SEED BY SEED inscribed for your classroom library, though everyone who sends a picture will get an autographed bookplate!

Another aspect of SEED BY SEED I am very excited about has to do with the idea of a legend. What’s fact in a story, and what’s fiction? Is it true that John Chapman donned a tin pot on his head, slept in the same log as a bear, was visited by angels? John Chapman as a historical figure is an enigma. Many books even for grown-ups haggle over what’s real and what is hyperbole. I have been investigating John Chapman for years, and a selected list of resources is at the beginning of the book. One that really interested me especially in my research was an article from the November, 1871 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Johnny Appleseed, a Pioneer Hero,” because it was more of a primary source, with accounts given by people who might have actually crossed paths with him…might have. I love that Johnny’s story inspires so much scrutiny. Even in reviews for this book thus far, there seems to be an emphasis on fact-checking and argument, and I love it. It’s just another aspect that lends relevancy to the modern age, when we should be check-double-checking facts, and assessing credibility of sources. Good heavens, that warms the coddles of my little librarian heart! I hope SEED BY SEED will be used to help children explore these skills, and I imagine that read in conjunction with Deborah Hopkinson’s wonderful book ABE LINCOLN CROSSES A CREEK: A TALL, THIN TALE, it should inspire some serious discussion and critical thinking across the grade levels about how history might be revised, and where the seed of truth rests in storytelling.

One person who really did her homework was Lynne Rae Perkins. She writes about her process in creating pictures for SEED BY SEED here, and you can look at some of the finished illustrations here. Thank you, Lynne Rae, for bringing this tribute to life!  Though I know she is most famous for her Newbery-award winning CRISS-CROSS, I fell in love with her illustrations in SNOW MUSIC and THE BROKEN CAT. I heard her speak many years ago, and was very much in awe of the gravity she afforded each detail and decision in her books. For SEED BY SEED, her pictures bridge the gap between now and then with a bit of Narnia-like time travel magic, just what I would have hoped, starting and ending on a modern note, with a window into the pioneer past in between. I was especially thrilled and sighing out loud that she chose a model who reminded her of work by the great Barbara Cooney, especially since I always wondered why Madame Cooney never wrote a book about Johnny Appleseed, it seemed like such a perfect match (and MISS RUMPHIUS seemed related to Johnny as a distant aunt, anyway). Did you know, illustrators and authors don’t usually communicate directly in the creation of a book?  So it was a special delight to realize we were on the “same page.” If I may put on my reviewer’s hat (or tin pot, as the case may be), I was also so enraptured by her mixed media approach. Most show-stopping is her embroidered double-page spread speckled with ripe fruit. My personal favorite in the whole book is the painting on wood of two hands outstretched, a banner for “try to make peace where there is war.” Her diverse use of frames, spreads and headings makes me happy from a teacherly Common-Apple-Core point of view, because I know that I could/would/will use it to help children recognize visual cues for attacking nonfiction. Of course, I don’t think Lynne Rae intended that. She’s just a natural, just like Johnny. A perfect pairing.

The back page of SEED BY SEED has suggestions for a celebration, “A Johnny Appleseed Anniversary,” and of course, a how-to for apple pie, Johnny’s favorite dessert, which I make religiously on his birthday, September 26th. Because, with all respect to my very fine husband, I am in love with Johnny Appleseed. Johnny Appleseed is my historical boyfriend; he could be my Daguerreotype Boyfriend, except there are no photos taken of him, just a few drawings. No matter. In my heart and mind’s eye, I know just how he is: from his grungy Phish-show-esque bare feet to his gait, tilted either from navigating gnarly roots underfoot or hard cider. I see the rectangular lump in his shirt, where he is carrying his copy of Swedenborg, or part of it. I see his smile, thin and chapped and wrapped in his grizzly beard, and his eyes, weary from the reflection of river water and worry over the latest rough exchange with family or hard news from one warring side or another, and yet still with a glint borne of the distracting delight of the sight of a tree, heavy with apples, that took root first under his hand, or better yet, a sapling, swaying jauntily on the back of a wagon bed heading west. I see you, Johnny, and I feel you, and I dedicate SEED BY SEED to all that is true to your memory and to your invention. I know you, and I want everyone to know you, Johnny Appleseed, especially now, when we need you and your footsteps so much!

I wrote this book because Johnny Appleseed is my American hero. He changed the landscape of our country by planting seeds every day, and he inspires me to think what seed I can plant every day that might, likewise, change the landscape of my country. For me, that seed is read-aloud to children.  And now, as the last page of SEED BY SEED asks, as Johnny’s example provokes:

What seed will you plant?

Illustration of Johnny Appleseed from the Ohio Historical Society, posted on Ohio History Central.
Monument, Richland Historical Society.
PlanetEsme.com linoleum print courtesy of Jim Pollock at PollockPrints.com.
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