Ten Questions, with Katie Smith Milway

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Ten Questions, with Katie Smith Milway

Food insecurity affects 75 per cent of the world’s poor farmers. In her new children's book, The Good Garden: How One Family Went from Hunger to Having Enough (Kids Can Press, 2010), Katie Smith Milway shares the story of how one Honduran family learned to make the most of their limited resources. She talks to Open Book about the writing of this story and her work in community and youth activism.

Katie Smith Milway be reading at the Young IFOA on Tuesday, Oct. 26. See our Events page for more details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new children's book, The Good Garden: How One Family Went from Hunger to Having Enough.

Katie Smith Milway:

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 labour 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 gain confidence about taking their own produce to market versus 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 important, the way the family shares what they have learned — passes it forward — ultimately transforms village after village.

OB:

The Good Garden is based on a true story. How did this story come to your attention?

KSM:

Inadvertently, the book is the fruit of about 18 years of thought and labour! I researched the life of the teacher — his real name is Don Elías Sanchez — just after the Earth Summit in 1992 for a biography-based story of healthy community development: The Human Farm: A Tale of Changing Lives & Changing Lands (Kumarian Press/Stylus Publishing, 1994). Then, in 2005, just as I was finishing up the manuscript for my last kid’s book, One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference, the main characters in The Human Farm came out with a Spanish translation and asked me to review it. As I reread paragraphs on Don Elías’s 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.

OB:

Did you work closely with your illustrator, Sylvie Daigneault, or did she create her illustrations independently?

KSM:

We never met in person until after the work was completed, although we exchanged lots of emails about the visuals — typical flora, fauna, clothing, etc.

OB:

Why did you choose to target children ages seven and up for this particular book?

KSM:

Kids at that age are naturally entrepreneurial, including in nature. They love to water flowers, plant seeds. It felt like a great age to connect those natural interests to a major world issue — food security — and inspire them to tackle some part of it.

OB:

The Good Garden is supplemented with an interactive website for children and educators. How do you hope this website will be used?

KSM:

On September 1st, we kicked off a National Food Drive on the website as a hands-on way to combat hunger: schools, families, clubs and churches can register their teams at www.thegoodgarden.org, then appear on the map and chart the impact of cumulative efforts. The website also offers schools free, downloadable lesson plans that relate the topic of food security to social studies, science, community service and other subjects, as well as a photo and video library called “Meet Real People” that introduces small farmers around the world and how they are achieving food security.

Come winter, we will have a Good Garden Chutes & Ladders board game from Hasbro, freely available to schools that teach Good Garden modules, and in the spring we will launch teacher manuals, workbooks and other resources for after school, summer school and in-school enrichment units. All of these resources are the work of the education nonprofit, One Hen, Inc., which equips educators with tools to teach world issues and inspire values of personal initiative, financial responsibility, global awareness and giving back.

OB:

The Stop Community Food Centre and One Hen are two organizations that share the values you promote in The Good Garden. Can you tell us a bit more about these organizations?

KSM:

The Stop was one of the Toronto’s first food banks, but since has blossomed into a community hub that offers community kitchens and gardens, cooking classes, drop-in meals, peri-natal support, a food bank, outdoor bake ovens, food markets and community advocacy. In 2009, The Stop opened The Green Barn, a sustainable food production and education centre with a 3,000 square-foot greenhouse, commercial kitchen, classroom, sheltered garden and composting facility. School visits and an after-school program offer hands-on opportunities for children to learn about the food system. Underlying all of The Stop’s efforts is the view that food should be a basic human right.

One Hen, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) education nonprofit that grew out of my first world issues book for kids: One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference. The nonprofit teaches financial responsibility, personal initiative, global awareness and giving back to community. Its programs, which turn my books (and other’s) into classroom learning, draw on stories of transformation to inspire children to an entrepreneurial vision for their own lives — one that marries personal success to helping others succeed. click on About Us tab for more information.

OB:

Would you say you were an activist as a child?

KSM:

I was certainly active! And very service oriented: I started helping out in my elementary schools kindergarten classroom at age nine, door-knocking for the March of Dimes at age ten, and working on the campaign phone banks for our local member of parliament at age twelve. By high school, my idea of fun was public service.

OB:

What books from your childhood are most memorable to you, and why?

KSM:

My favorite was and is To Kill a Mockingbird, which relates a story of social injustice through the eyes of a child, Scout, (a fictionalized version of young Harper Lee, the author), and comes out in a place where character, not colour or hearsay, count.

OB:

Do you think that North American kids need to be more aware of the difficult circumstances that many children in developing countries face? What is the best way to expose our children to these difficult realities?

KSM:

I hope my stories will help kids to 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, with all its attendant joys and pains. It is hard work to grow food and outwit weather and varmints that would destroy your crop.

OB:

What do you think your next writing project will be?

KSM:

I hope to keep writing for the CitizenKid series. It so well aligns with my personal mission to engage kids in world issues as changemakers, and the women running the imprint are great. Topics I’m working on include literacy and primary health care.


Katie Smith Milway is a partner at the Bridgespan Group, a consultant to nonprofits and philanthropists. She is also the author of the internationally acclaimed One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference. Katie lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

The Good Garden is part of the CitizenKid series, a collection of books that inform children about the world and inspire them to be better global citizens.

For more information about The Good Garden please visit the Kids Can Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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