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Authorís latest tale of urban farmer
October 11, 2013 · Dave Morris

Since she grew up on a farm in Maine, it's only natural that Mount Vernon author Jacqueline Briggs Martin would one day write about a farm.

This is no ordinary farm, though, and the farmer is far from ordinary, too.

Her latest book for children, illustrated by Eric Shabazz Larkin, deals with urban farming, specifically the work of former pro basketball player Will Allen and his Growing Power project in Milwaukee. Allen received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2008 for his groundbreaking work developing an urban farm, his work solving problems along the way and for sharing his methods.

Martin began working on the book "Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table" in 2010. She originally planned to feature a number of urban farms, but after hearing of Allen's compelling personal story, she focused on him.

Like Allen, Martin was raised on a farm and didn't necessarily appreciate the work as a child. That changed in adulthood.

"I grew up on a farm in Maine. I love gardening. In 1993 I did a gardening story. I just had a hankering to do another. I wanted to do an urban farm," she said. "I thought for kids it would be best to focus on one."

Martin explained that Will Allen hated gardening and farming as a child, but as an adult playing basketball in Belgium, when one of his friends asked him to dig potatoes, it brought back memories and he found he loved it. After moving to Wisconsin, he determined that he wanted to grow food closer to the people who would eat it.

When visiting his urban plots in Milwaukee in 2010, Martin saw him growing everything from mushrooms and microgreens to tilapia and perch, all in an urban setting. Through trial and error, he became something of an expert on using red wiggler worms, which helped him compost garbage into fine soil.

"He thinks of everything," she said.

Importantly, she said, he tells others how to do what he is doing.

"He not only grows food, he grows farmers and farms. He is such a focused person. He's made such a difference," Martin said.

She noted that the Matthew 25 organization's gardens in Cedar Rapids were inspired by Allen.

Martin explained the origins of the book's title. Allen has talked about his mother having a lot of food on the table and the people who sat at the table being happy.

"That's really what he's done - created this table and people leave feeling nourished," she said.

After she determined she wanted to write about Allen, she located a publisher whose purpose is to build food literacy in children. That's important, Martin said, because it not only helps children learn to live healthful lives, but "also to understand the wholeness of our world. It gives us a better sense of what our world is made up of."

This is Martin's 18th book, and it's aimed at young people about 5 to 10 years old. The biggest challenge in writing it "was finding a way of telling the story of this life in a way that's interesting to kids."

Length is a consideration when writing for young people.

"I thought I had it done and it was 1,400 words," Martin said. But when she was reading it to a group of students at a school in the area, she realized that although she was keeping their attention, the book was too long. She took out 400 words.

"With a thousand words, they have to be just the right words," she explained.

Martin said there's a reward in writing a book like this.

"What I get is the experience of sharing a story that means something to me," she said.

While she enjoys the writing and research process and getting letters from her young readers, "Maybe they'll see how Will Allen never gave up and solved so many problems along the way. I hope they will remember Will Allen or Snowflake Bentley," the subject of her earlier Caldecott Medal-winning book about a man who studied snowflakes.

Martin said Mount Vernon is a good place for her to be a writer.

"I think Mount Vernon is a wonderful community for a writer to live in. There are just so many interesting and committed people in this area. I find it an energizing place to be," she said.

The book is available at First Brick in Mount Vernon, Prairie Lights in Iowa City, New Bo Books in Cedar Rapids and Barnes and Noble, as well as through online sellers such as Amazon.

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