When I first created Chipper his big adventures were to start at the windowsill of a bed and breakfast cottage nestled within a bed of color reminiscent of a Monet’s Garden painting. Chipper would delight in tales delivered by the cottage owner while guests were off exploring for the day; because Chipper knew kids were meant to be neither seen nor heard from here. I remember sharing the mission of my little squirrel with a producer whom looked at me and said: “Squirrels are rodents and I hate rodents in my garden.” That squirrels are active, curious creatures ready to explore and engage meant little to this producer … and, more importantly, passionate gardener.
Last week, I remembered my early inspiration after reading Weeds Find a Way, by author and poet Cindy Jenson-Elliott and illustrated by Carolyn Fisher. That another writer would find beauty and personality in something otherwise destined to be dug up and discarded gave me a sense of camaraderie so I flipped through the pages. And then, I took the hardback book with me to story time. How would the kids see themselves when asked: “Are you a weed or a plant?” “And what is the difference?”
Both the story and illustrations captured the children’s (6-10 year olds) attention and the word for the day became “empathy.” The story excited conversation and reasons why we should just let the weeds grow.
There is a very whimsical rhythm to the flow of the text and illustrations and you feel like you are being blown carefree through the pages. Take time to discuss what it means to coexist and delight in the conversation. I highly recommend this book for the classroom and a perfect page-turner for the overnight with the grandparents. Pull the jacket cover off and save it as my ten year old did as she is determined to save this one for her own children some day. “I want it to look new again.”
The Chipper mom in me took to finding Jenson-Elliott so I could go knee deep into the weeds to learn a little bit more. I found a late bloomer to science and a teacher making up time as Jenson-Elliott designs Teacher guides to support her growing list of children’s books. Enjoy our conversation and happy planting:
Do you see children as weeds or flowers/plants? Weeds as plants are a wonderful metaphor for children. They are resilient, tenacious, beautiful, clever, adaptable, without all of our interventions, just as they are.
What is your earliest experience realizing the difference between a weed and a flower: I remember my curiosity about the difference between the planted and an unplanted world. I remember wondering around age four who planted certain plants. We lived in a really verdant area around Philadelphia, with yards that had probably once been landscaped but had reverted to a tangle of green.
We had a very overgrown rose garden that my mother struggled to bring to order, and I remember many afternoons running around in the back while she trimmed the thorny stems. We were new to the big old house, and it had been inhabited by a very old man before we moved in, so the formal rows of roses were leggy. One day I found remnants of a vegetable garden, broken down corn stalks, a tiny ear of Indian corn, growing behind the garage. All around it were wildflowers—weeds! —Queen Anne’s lace, black eyed Susans. One day I found a jack-in-the-pulpit. I have a very clear memory of seeing the little “man” inside his pulpit and how wonderful it was.
Living in suburbia, and seeing urban landscaping, a lot of kids—myself included—may think that someone went around and planted everything they see. I think I asked my mother, “Who planted those trees?” I really didn’t understand her answer: “No one, they just grew there.” It seemed mysterious and amazing, this world without people. Even today, I find that fact really moving, almost a relief. Singer Dana Lyons has a great line in his song, “Willy Says:” “Here’s a story that you may not comprehend. The parking lot will crack and bloom again. There’s a world beneath the pavement that will never end.” The natural world is so beautiful without our intervention. We don’t really have to do anything—just appreciate it.
What tips can you offer parents and educators on using the analogy of weeds/flowers and the lessons in developing friendships? I have curriculum in my free curriculum guide, downloadable on my website, that speaks to this issue. While I did not intentionally set out to teach a social-emotional lesson, I realized how embedded those lessons are after the book came out. Kind of funny that way—poets often don’t know what their poems are about until after they are written.
Weeds can teach us a lot in the social-emotional realm. They hold many qualities that we hope to engender in our children as human beings, and as learners. We hope they have grit – the ability to stick with something no matter what, withstand hardship, and thrive in spite of – and because of – challenges.
Weeds can also teach us a lot about appreciating the diverse qualities of others – the hidden beauties we may not see the first time we meet someone. Weeds teach us to look again at something we think we know well – or someone we think we have all figured out. When we have an opinion about someone – we think they are a “weed” rather than a flower, for example – we jump to conclusions about who they are. When we look more deeply, we can come to appreciate is that everyone has wonderful qualities – even thorny personalities.
Some wonderful curricula and teacher training for helping children learn to appreciate each other in the classroom and beyond are the Responsive Classroom and Second Step, and my all-time favorite book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.
What’s your favorite weed? In my neighborhood, I think cheeseweed is one of my favorites. It is in the mallow family, like many landscaping plants, and has geranium-like leaves. I would love to see fireweed, though, which Carolyn Fisher put in those beautiful final pictures in the book. I was not familiar with it before she did the art, but everyone I have shown the book to who is from Canada or the northwest says, “Ah! Fireweed! I love fireweed!” Carolyn, who lives in Canada, added many weeds I didn’t know in the art, and then I went back in and added them in the text.
How do your children inspire your storytelling? My science work with children has most inspired my work. I came to science late – in my early 30s –when I went back to school and took as many science classes as I could fit in before I had to go back to work full time. Every class was a revelation, a wonder, from biology to chemistry to geology and physics. Teaching science and gardening, and writing about science and gardening, have been ways for me to explore ideas more deeply and share those with children. We learn science through experiencing that joy and wonder of the world, and I would like every child to have a chance to feel the awe of understanding something amazing about our extraordinary ordinary world.
Weeds Find a Way is available at Barnes & Noble.