Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table
by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Eric-Shabazz Larkin
Afterword by Will Allen
Age Range: 10-12 years
Hardcover: $17.95, ISBN 978-0983661535
Paperback: $9.95, ISBN 978-0983661580
Will Allen is no ordinary farmer. A former basketball star, he’s as tall as his truck, and he can hold a cabbage, or a basketball, in one hand. But what is most special about Farmer Will is that he can see what others can’t see. When he looked at an abandoned city lot he saw a huge table, big enough to feed the whole world. No space, no problem. Poor soil, there’s a solution. Need help, found it. Farmer Will is a genius in solving problems. In 2008, the MacArthur Foundation named him one.
Jacqueline Briggs Martin, author of the Caldecott winner, Snowflake Bentley, tells the inspiring story of an innovator, educator, and community builder. Combined with artist Eric-Shabazz Larkin’s striking artwork, readers will share Will Allen’s optimism and determination to bring good food to every table.
Jacqueline Briggs Martin is the author of Snowflake Bentley, winner of the Caldecott Medal. Her last book,The Chiru of High Tibet, was named “Best Book of 2010″ by Smithsonian Magazine and Kirkus Review. Other notable mentions include ALA Notables, a Golden Kite Honor Award, Lupine Awards from the Maine Library Association, and four inclusions on the Blue Ribbon List of the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. She has taught creative writing at Hamline College and University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival. She grew up on a farm in Maine and now lives in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. Learn more about Jackie at jacquelinebriggsmartin.com.
Eric-Shabazz Larkin is a film maker, fine artist, and a creative director in advertising. He is also a founder of the Creative School of Thought, a group of artists that produce content for public art and social change. A native of Virginia, he lives in New York City. This is his first book for children.
* 2014 Notable Children’s Book, American Library Association
* “Best Books 2013 Nonfiction,” School Library Journal
* “100 Titles for Reading and Sharing 2013,” New York Public Library
* “Top 10 Sustainability Title 2013,” Booklist
* “Top 10 Crafts & Gardening Title for Youth,” Booklist
* “15 Books For Future Foodies,” Food Tank: The Food Think Tank
“This engaging introduction to the work of Will Allen and his organization, Growing Power, should stimulate interest in gardening in schools, homes, and communities… Larkin’s energetic illustrations reflect both hard work outdoors and the delicious results on a table loaded with good food.”
—“Starred” review, Booklist
“The idea of farming as a community builder…comes across clearly in the book.”
—Starred” review, School Library Journal
“A timely topic for eco-minded youngsters and future agriculturalists.”
—”Best Books 2013 Nonfiction,” School Library Journal
“Will Allen can see / what others can’t see. / When he sees kids, he sees farmers.” Martin begins and ends with this positive premise. In between, she sketches salient events that stoked Allen’s commitment to empowering people to grow their own food. Raised in a food-loving family that grew and shared its own, Will eschewed weeding and picking for college and a move to Belgium to play pro basketball, where he continued gardening on the side. He brought an acumen for growing veggies home to Milwaukee and saw that “fresh vegetables / were as scarce in the city / as trout in the desert.” Will bought a polluted city lot and created compost from food waste, aided by red wiggler worms. He taught kids and teens to farm and traveled the world with his message. Martin’s verse text, laced with word bursts in ebullient display type, engages both readers and listeners. In his picture-book debut, Larkin provides mixed-media cityscapes that, eventually, brim with the fruits of Allen’s labor and match Will’s exuberance and spirit of community.
From the small press Readers To Eaters, this worthy collaboration reveals how one man’s vision of food for all has inspired an amazing life of service.
“This lively introduction to Will Allen’s groundbreaking work (for which he’s received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant) features a buoyant narrative by Jacqueline Briggs Martin set against Eric-Shabazz Larkin’s energetic illustrations. It’s impossible not to be inspired by their account of the creativity of Will’s venture and the hope inherent in its success.”
—Cooperative Children’s Book Center, “Recommended Book of the Week”
“The book is a beautiful tribute not just to its hero Will Allen but also to the right of every child to have access to good, healthy, cheap food. The ultimate picture book about muncha muncha muncha…While we talk about the rise in obesity levels in the United States, it just makes sense to talk about how economics affect access to healthy alternatives. And part of what makes Farmer Will Allen such a good story is that it draws that connection without getting anywhere near a soapbox…Fun and informative by turns, raise a carrot or cabbage in honor of this awesome dude and his equally awesome tale.”
—Betsy Bird, School Library Journal’s Fuse #8 Blog, Senior Children’s Librarian, NYPL The New York Public Library
“Rating: OUTSTANDING. Will Allen deserves this compelling biography so aptly rendered by author Jacqueline Briggs Martin (Snowflake Bentley; Houghton, 1993) and illustrator Eric-Shabazz Larkin’s ink and pen artistry…The use of questions (e.g., “But how could Will farm in the middle of pavement and parking lots?”) and of large colorful fonts to emphasize key phrases (e.g., Fish. Water. Sprouts. Farm Machine) provide a conversational tone that is further brought to life by thoughtful and vibrant illustrations of multicultural communities and the nutritious foods they are growing. An afterword from Allen about good food and good farming, an author’s note about the power of one person to affect so much change, and a current, concise list of resources finish off this inspiring story. Readers to Eaters Books has another winning title on their hands.
—Bayviews, Association of Children’s Librarians of Northern California
“An inspiring non-fiction picturebook…The text is formatted as an engaging narrative punctuated by questions, dialog, and information. The illustrations add enthusiastic color mixed in bold patches and active linework to create lovely textured backgrounds that subtly become more saturated over the course of the story. The characters stand out as almost flat with cartoon-like simplicity that allows them to shift dynamically from page to page, creating an almost universal field of helping hands. Concluding with the motivational question, “How big will YOUR table be?”
—Reading Today, International Reading Association
“The text is clear, concise, informative and lively. The illustrations expand upon the text and just naturally seem to draw in the reader… It is ideal for the emerging reader, the older reluctant reader, and also for a middle school or high school classroom or community group discussion of urban farming, community cooperation, and role models…Both text and illustrations encourage discussion. Every time I open this book, I see and read more and more.”
—CLCD, Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table beautifully captures his ambitious belief in growing the next generation of alt.farmers, good eaters, and community self-reliance. This book is an ideal companion for school garden educators and for parents wanting to make gardening relevant to kids. I’d also recommend it for social change activists since the book makes complex social enterprise ideas into practical, tactile steps.
—Slow Food USA, Richard McCarthy, Executive Director
“Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table is an inspirational story that highlights the importance of healthy, homegrown food and the importance of civic engagement. Will Allen’s story serves as an educational tool for children to recognize how important it is to be able to access healthy food and revitalize urban spaces. Will is a champion for this message, and is a living example of how one person can change a city.”
—Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee
School Library Journal’s Fuse #8 Blog:
“It shouldn’t be this hard. You walk to a biography section of a children’s room, any children’s room, and you start searching for biographies of living people who are not sports stars, actors, musicians or politicians. And you search. And you search. And after a while your eyes kind of droop and you feel a bit sleepy, so you tell yourself you’ll continue to search on another day. Don’t bother. I can tell you right off that finding biographies of contemporary people who don’t fall into the worlds of sports, entertainment, or politics is a fool’s errand. Average extraordinary people tend to be lumped in group biographies if anywhere at all. That’s part of what makes Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table such a rarity. Part biography, part paean to urban gardens and gardeners everywhere. The book is a beautiful tribute not just to its hero Will Allen but also to the right of every child to have access to good, healthy, cheap food. The ultimate picture book about muncha muncha muncha.
Actually, I’ll level with you. Will Allen really was a basketball player. At first anyway. Though he grew up in a family that grew most of its own food, he wasn’t a fan of the work. As soon as he could he left those Maryland fields for college and became a professional basketball player in Belgium. While over there a friend asked for some help digging potatoes and the next thing Will knew he was hooked. After moving back to the States he adopted six empty, abandoned greenhouses in Milwaukee. What followed was years of trial and error as Will worked to turn his lots into working gardens. With the help of the community (and more than a few red wigglers) Will didn’t just get those greenhouses working, but city garden plots around the country too. Now he speaks everywhere from Kenya to London, teaching people how to grow food for themselves. The good news? Will Allen sees things other people can’t. And “when he sees kids, he sees farmers”.
I think there’s a danger of adults falling into this belief that kids only want to read about other kids. Our memories of childhood may skew a bit, and when we think of books written for children, a lot of the time we assume that kids aren’t going to want to read about people too much older than themselves. Of course, as one friend of mine put it recently, “That’s what people who don’t interact with kids at all think.” It is far from the truth. Children love hearing about adults. Adults hold an allure of their very own. For a child, reading about adults offers them both distance (“I will never be that old”) and promise (“I could live that life”). But to write a book for kids about an adult that isn’t a household name (yet) you need a good author. Enter Jacqueline Briggs Martin.
Now Ms. Martin holds the distinction of being one of the very few nonfiction picture book authors to win a Caldecott Award for one of her books (Snowflake Bentley. Typically Caldecotts go to fictional fare. That’s not born out of any innate prejudice. It’s more that until recently there haven’t been great swaths of fabulous illustrated nonfiction to chose from. Ms. Martin’s books seek to change all that and Farmer Will Allen is a step in the right direction. As an author, Ms. Martin has never gone with expected topics, though in this particular case she’s showing her hand. You see back in 1997 she penned The Green Truck Garden Giveaway: A Neighborhood Story and Almanac. In that book she told the tale of two people who drive around in a truck giving away little “bucket gardens”. Clearly her love of gardening in unexpected places has only grown in the intervening sixteen years.
In Will Allen Martin translates her love of gardening into an honestly good story. In general, realistic lives aren’t tailor made for literature. Life is too messy. Too complicated. What Martin is capable of doing then is of plucking only the essentials from Mr. Allen. That done, she sets about talking about healthy food, a difficult topic if only because a lesser author would give in to the temptation to preach. We live in an era where fatty, salty, oily food is so much cheaper than food that is good for us. Fruits and vegetables are sold everywhere but they aren’t free. So while we talk about the rise in obesity levels in the United States, it just makes sense to talk about how economics affect access to healthy alternatives. And part of what makes Farmer Will Allen such a good story is that it draws that connection without getting anywhere near a soapbox.
If you had told me after reading this that this was illustrator Eric-Shabazz Larkin’s first book for children I would not have believed you. Indeed, I’m having a hard time believing it even after I looked up his biography. The fact of the matter is that even when a magnificently talented artist attempts their first picture book for kids, they usually have a hard time with the design and layout. The truth? Most of the time it feels like they’re phoning it in. Not Larkin. With ink and pen and markers (as well as some digital work for flair), the man constructs a life. He knows where to put the text and how to incorporate it into the images. Basketballs turn effortlessly into potatoes. The Statue of Liberty is pictured holding a bunch of beets and somehow manages to look imposing and impressive rather than downright ridiculous. There are color washes in this book that glow on the page and the typography (which I normally never notice) is magnificent. Now as to the question of accuracy, I suspect that Larkin didn’t do too much research in terms of Allen’s home life as a child. When we see little Will Allen standing in a child’s version of his customary blue sleeveless t-shirt and green baseball hat, we’re straining the edges of credulity. That said, the image is more representational than a strict history. I think I’m okay with it. Faux dialogue in nonfiction picture books tends to drive me nutty, but imagined childhoods? Personally it raises no red flags for me. You might feel differently.
I can tell you right now that Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table will not be shelved in my library’s biography section. Maybe you see that as a mistake, but for me it’s the only way to get the doggone thing into the hands of readers. The likelihood that a child is going to walk into a library anywhere (except possibly Milwaukee) saying, “I want a biography of Will Allen” is slim at best. The likelihood of a kid walking in saying, “I need a book on city gardens” or urban gardens, or composting, or gardening in general, is significantly higher. As a librarian, my job is to get this book into the hands of as many readers as possible. Fortunately, Martin’s topic and Larkin’s art combined with Allen’s story make this a sure-fire winner. We live in an era where food is falling under greater and greater scrutiny. Apply those standards to your child’s nonfiction picture book fare and Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table passes all the tests with flying colors. Fun and informative by turns, raise a carrot or cabbage in honor of this awesome dude and his equally awesome tale.”
—Betsy Bird, School Library Journal’s Fuse #8 Blog, Senior Children’s Librarian, NYPL The New York Public Library
Allen, Will. The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities. With Charles Wilson. New York: Gotham Books, 2012.
Allen, Will, “Organic Farming: What You Do Makes a Difference” (keynote address, Twelfth Annual Iowa Organic Conference, Memorial Union, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, November 19, 2012). Lecture attended by author.
Growing Power, “NCAA Honors Will Allen, CEO of Growing Power, with Roosevelt Award — Press Release,” growingpower.org, December 5, 2011, http://www.growingpower.org/blog/archives/830
Hosick, Michelle Brutlag, “More About Will Allen and the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award,” growingpower.org, December 5, 2011, http://www.growingpower.org/blog/archives/830
Mays, Loretta (personal assistant to Will Allen), e-mail to author, February 20, 2012, in the author’s private collection.
Miner, Barbara, “An Urban Farmer Is Rewarded for His Dreams,” New York Times, September 25, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/01/dining/01genius.html?_r=0
Royte, Elizabeth, “Street Farmer,” New York Times Magazine, July 1, 2009,http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/magazine/05allen-t.html?pagewanted=all
SallyCin, “What to Feed Your Red Wiggler Worms,”
Will Allen, interview by Barry Hurd, “Will Allen, The Farmer,” OnInnovation.com, January 29, 2011,http://www.oninnovation.com/topics/detail.aspx?playlist=2121&title=Will%20Allen