Inviting Children to Observe the World
In her latest book, Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld ’76 takes kids into the garden.
Growing up on a farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld ’76 spent lots of time outdoors, tramping through the woods with her grandfather, looking for bear signs and porcupine dens, and helping her mom in her big vegetable garden.
That early experience with the natural world and a longstanding interest in helping technology centered kids get over their nature phobia are what inspired Zoehfeld to write Secrets of the Garden: Food Chains and the Food Web in Our Backyard (Knopf Books for Young Readers).
The children’s book is a journey through the vegetable garden of one family, from spring planting to fall harvest. Narrator Alice discovers all the wonders of a garden’s life cycle, and talking chickens proffer scientific information about everything from composting to nutrition.
“Kids in elementary school have to learn about food chains, and so you can approach it in an abstract way, or you can get kids out into the backyard and let them have fun and get their hands dirty,” Zoehfeld says. She hopes her books will inspire the latter.
A former children’s book editor, Zoehfeld talks to teachers to figure out what they need to help move their curriculum along. The author of more than sixty books for kids in every age group from preschool through middle school, Zoehfeld is skilled at getting the required facts incorporated into a story that is memorable and makes kids want to turn the page.
It isn’t easy. It took her almost ten years to get her first book, What Lives in a Shell?, accepted for publication. It was the mentoring of a Smith alumna at publisher Lippincott & Crowell that first got her interested in science literacy. An English major and art-history minor at MHC, she was fascinated by meshing the written word with visual elements.
Her biggest markets are libraries and schools, and in recent years both have suffered hefty cutbacks in budgets. Nevertheless, her books garner lots of praise and prizes, and Secrets is no different; it was recently recommended by Kirkus, the School Library Journal, and Scholastic News’ “Teachers’ Picks.”
A resident of gardening heaven Berkeley, California, Zoehfeld has a sequel coming out sometime next year called Secrets of the Seasons, and she is also at work on something completely different: a young-adult historical novel.
“It’s good to keep challenging yourself,” she notes. At the start of her career, Zoehfeld wondered if she really had anything to say. She’s answered that sixty times over. But for a writer, that feeling never goes away.
“Can I really do this?” she asks of writing a novel. Alice would likely give her a thumbs-up for braving the unknown in her own backyard.—Mieke H. Bomann
August 14, 2012