Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Judy Pedersen.
Scholastic, New York, 1999 (first published HarperCollins 1997).
Adult realistic fiction, 69 pages.
Lexile: 710L .
AR Level: 4.3 (worth 2.0 points) .
NOTE: Despite the reading level, I would not recommend this to middle grade readers.
Seedfolks is a collection of 13 short stories by different first-person narrators, all revolving around the first year of a community garden in Cleveland, Ohio.
Normally with short story collections, I comment on each story and then give thoughts on the whole. Because these stories are so short, I’m going to write two or three sentences about each one and then give my general thoughts at the end.
Kim is a young Vietnamese-American girl. After the anniversary of her father’s death, she suffers not because he is gone, but because she was born after his death and feels she doesn’t know him. Desperate for some connection to him, she decides to plant six bean seeds in the vacant lot next door.
Elderly Romanian Ana spends her days watching people out the window, thinking about changes the neighborhood has undergone. Suspicious that Kim is hiding something illegal, she digs up the bean sprouts.
Wendell feels a kinship with Ana because they’re the only two white people left in their building. He runs to her aid when she frantically calls him, only to find himself reluctantly saving bean plants.
Gonzalo is an eight-grader who has theories about immigration based on his own experiences moving to America from Guatamala. He babysits his mother’s uncle, who doesn’t speak English, or even Spanish, but understands the universal language of plants.
As the mother of two high school students, Leona understands how to make things happen. She fights to get the trash in the vacant lot removed so the community garden can grow.
Retired community organizer Sam believes that his purpose in life is to show the neighborhood that white people, and Jews, aren’t that scary after all, one smile at a time. Of course he finds a way to get in on the garden, and maybe even improve it.
Virgil‘s father is planting a large crop, some of it on behalf of relatives back in Haiti. But Virgil is concerned for how this endeavor will turn out, not to mention embarrassed.
After a terrifying experience, Korean immigrant Sae Young has been isolated. Her husband has died, they have no children, and the garden provides a safe space for her to build connections with the world again.
Curtis made some bad choices, but he’s grown up and learned from his mistakes. If only Lateesha would believe him and take him back. But he’s got a plot in the community garden next to her apartment building, and he remembers how much she likes tomatoes.
British Nora is determined to get her charge Mr. Myles (a paralyzed elderly black man) interested in life again, stroke or not. She begins with regular walks, but when he shows an interest in the community garden, she wonders how a wheelchair user could participate.
Maricela does not want to be part of the garden. Nor does she want to be a pregnant Mexican teen. Despite her GED program promoting “the miracle of life,” she just wishes her baby would die, since she feels her life is over.
Amir doesn’t like the change from an Indian city to an American one, feeling that people don’t know each other and there is no connection in the city. The community garden gives him a reason to get to know his neighbors and come together with them for a celebration. He soon learns that all he’s heard about Poles is about as useful as the stereotypes others have heard about Indians.
African-American Florence isn’t able to garden herself, but relishes the connection the garden provides to her country roots and the people around her. She waits through the winter in hope and anguish – will the garden start again in spring?
I had mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it is an interesting conceit cleverly done. It seems Paul Fleischman specializes in this unusual narrative format – several of his other books are written the same way.
On the other hand, it seems that this is a favorite of middle school teachers and ESL classes. I could see this being used effectively by adult ESL teachers. But younger students could be damaged by this book.
In particular, Kim, the young Vietnamese girl, is constantly referred to by other characters as Chinese or Oriental. Other Asian characters are similarly put down, and this is only corrected once throughout the book. While this book was written in 1997, and I usually tend to give more leeway to older books, this book rarely veers from its white perspective, even when the characters speaking are mostly PoC.
The other aspect of this is Maricela, who spends most of the story wishing that she and/or her baby would die. While this is how some teen moms feel, it wasn’t handled appropriately to be introduced to a young audience. This story in particular made me feel that the book is for teens or adults.
I have many students who are Asian – I would not read this book with my middle school students. There are a few chapters that could be read as individual stories which may be more appropriate, however due to the unique narrative structure of this book, most of the chapters don’t work that way (since you would have to read the other stories in the book for a conclusion). Not recommended.