Author Jacqueline Briggs Martin: From Farm Life to Food Heroes

Jacqueline Briggs Martin is the author of numerous books for children centered around nature, farming, and cooking. Her most recent titles, Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious, Chef Roy Choi and The Street Food Remix, and Sandor Katz and the Tiny Wild are part of her Food Heroes Series that celebrate the lives of food innovators in the United States.

KidsGardening chatted with Jacqueline about her passion for connecting kids with food and farming through books and the inspiration behind her newest title in the Food Heroes Series, Farmer Eva's Green Garden Life, about sustainable agriculture pioneer Eva Sommaripa.

What is your personal experience with gardening?

I grew up on a dairy farm in Maine with three brothers, two sisters, my mom and dad, a great-great uncle, and grandparents downstairs. We lived upstairs in a big farmhouse. We had a huge garden which our great-great uncle tended. I did not love gardening as a child. The rows were way too long, and bending over to pick peas was hard on the back, even for a kid. I think I would have loved container gardening. Part of my current garden includes containers of herbs, and I really enjoy tending them.

A farmhouse, barn, and silos with a field in the foreground and clouds in the background.

What are some of your childhood food and garden memories?

I have many food memories. Seasonal foods made holidays for us. When strawberries were ripe, we whipped cream from our cows and ate strawberry shortcakes. When the garden peas were ready, we had peas and new potatoes bathed in butter and cream. In the spring, my Mom and I went out to the fields with paring knives and dug dandelions to cook and eat. Digging dandelions is easy. Cleaning them is more of a chore, but it was worth it. I loved dandelions — and I still do. They are best dug early while the dandelion buds are still tight in the center of the plant.

A sepia photograph of a cow and a person holding the cow by a halter on its face.

Above: Riverflat Blanche Wisconsin, one of Jacqueline’s favorite cows, being held by her dad.

What inspired you to create stories for children?

I have always loved the sounds of words. There were two rivers not far from our farm, the Nezinscot and the Androscoggin. I loved the rhythm of those names. And I loved the names of some of our cows, such as Riverflat Blanche Wisconsin and Riceland Marathon Indigo. I also had an active imagination that dreamed up an imaginary friend named Seekie, who I recall was a playful, good-natured gnomish character small enough to fit in our toy cupboard.

About the writing, I’ve always loved stories. When our children were young, we read books together every day. We didn’t have a huge collection, so we read the same stories many times, and we always enjoyed them. One day I thought, ‘I’d like to write stories that kids and parents could read and enjoy the way we do with our stack of books.’ I bought a new notebook and a pen and began to write. My early stories were quite derivative and not very good, but I kept at it. And eventually, I wrote a story based on our son’s fear of the wind. That became my first published book—Bizzy Bones and Uncle Ezra.

A book cover: Bizzy Bones and Uncle Ezra. There is a drawing of two mice under the words.

We're huge fans of the Food Heroes book series! What was your inspiration to start telling these people's stories?

Because of my childhood on the farm, I’ve always been drawn to stories about farming. I was looking to write a story about urban farms and did research on urban farms in Brooklyn, New York, San Francisco, California, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As I was working, I decided it might be more fun to look closely at one urban farm and one urban farmer. Milwaukee is only five hours from where I live, so I decided to visit Growing Power Farm, run by Will Allen and quickly realized this was the story I had been looking for. It was a pleasure to write Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table and learn Will’s incredible story—from buying abandoned greenhouses in the city to figuring out how to keep red wiggler worms alive to giving kids in the area a chance to learn about farming. And then, of course, Will traveled the world teaching others how to farm in cities. I recently discovered there is an urban farm in the city next to me, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, inspired by Growing Power Farm.

A blue book cover for Farmer Will Allen Growing Table. There is also a watercolor image of a Black person in front of food growing in containers.

For book number two, I wanted to focus on Alice Waters, who was a huge influence in changing the way restaurants think about the food they prepare and where they get the food they prepare. She introduced the idea of local food and farm-to-table cooking to many restaurant chefs. I loved writing Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix and Sandor Katz and the Tiny Wild with June Jo Lee. Roy Choi showed us that food trucks can be a source of gourmet deliciousness. Sandor Katz continues to learn and teach about how to turn cabbage and other vegetables into fizzy ferments. All of the “food heroes” I’ve written about have thought about food in new ways. They are food creatives and teachers, and it was great to share their stories with children.

Your newest book Farmer Eva's Green Garden Life is coming out April 1, 2024. Can you tell us a bit about this book and what you hope children enjoy about Farmer Eva's story?

When I heard of Eva—who supported herself for many years farming and gardening at a time when few women were doing so—I wanted to know more! Eva grows renowned greens and herbs. From her three-acre farm, Eva’s Garden, she has sold thousands of pounds of produce. But this book and Eva herself is about more than farming. She is very aware of the web of life on her farm and takes special care of the creatures who live there—killdeer, toads, even salamanders. She’s also made it a mission to share what she learns with the community of farmers in her area and share her produce with food pantries. She has introduced many new greens and herbs to her customers and often brings chefs foraged foods such as purslane, dandelions, and chickweed. She knows that it takes healthy soil to grow tasty crops, so one of her main focuses is to take care of the “brown underground” on her farm.

I have had such a good time learning about Eva—visiting her garden, talking with her, reading about her, and thinking about how best to tell her story. I wrote the story at least four times, with many drafts of each version. As I was writing her story, I put photos I had taken of Eva and her farm during my visits on a wall near my writing table so I could go back to her farm in my mind whenever I wanted.

Do you have dreams for any future garden-related or Food Heroes stories?

I am constantly on the lookout for story ideas. I’m especially drawn to those who share food in urban orchards, food pantries, and little free food banks, which I think were inspired by Little Free Libraries. I’m not sure who the next food heroes will be, but I am sure they are out there.

Do you have any tips for children who love stories and are considering becoming writers?

My advice to those who want to write—of any age—is to read, read all you can, “read like a wolf eats,” as the writer Gary Paulson said. You will learn about writing from books you love. And write, write lists—lists of places, lists of characters. Write poems. Write dialogue. Write questions—what would happen if…. Don’t expect that writing to be wonderful. If you started playing the trumpet, you would not expect it to sound perfect the first day. But after a while, it would sound better. Same with writing—you will get better. It took me five years of writing, practicing, and more writing before I wrote a story that anyone wanted to publish. But I loved the work of it (most days, not all), so I kept doing it. The key to becoming a better writer is to write. Then read. Then write some more.

Thanks so much for this chance to share thoughts about writing, stories, food, and gardening!