Harlem Grown: How One Big Idea Transformed a Neighborhood

By Tony Hillery, illustrated by Jessie Hartland. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2020. 40 pages. $17.99/hardcover; $10.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 4–8.

When Mr. Tony came with his guitar to PS 175 to share music with the students, he met Nevaeh and her energetic classmates. Nevaeh showed Mr. Tony the “haunted garden” across from the school full of ugly trash. Then Mr. Tony had a big idea. After the music lesson, Mr. Tony began to clear the trash. The children and the neighbors pitched in to help. “Soon it was a clean slate. A blank canvas.” Then the real work began. It was not easy to turn the land into a garden. Everyone persevered, and with much study, failures, and patience, the kids succeeded in growing fresh food to share with their families. The haunted garden was transformed into a beautiful community farm.

It is not a simple feat to present a true story in picture book form for young children. Tony Hillery and illustrator Jessie Hartland have done so, impressively, using 325 words and imaginative paintings that are intrinsic to the story. It is impossible to read this book without reading the pictures! Hartland’s gouache paintings—using every available space, cover to cover—evoke a lively Harlem neighborhood that gradually changes from dull gray to brighter green. People are painted in various shades of brown. There is much to see on every page. Have vegetables ever looked so appealing?

Four end pages describe how Harlem Grown has expanded to 12 sites across Harlem with full-time staff and local young people mentoring in the schools, teaching about healthy eating, food justice, and sustainability. There is an “additional resources” section. A page tells how to start a garden anywhere in six steps. The website harlemgrown.org has current information about this nonprofit; there are pictures of workers in masks carrying on during the pandemic. Growing local food in small gardens and community farms has become increasingly popular across the United States as well as internationally. Demand for seeds temporarily exceeded supply at some U.S. seed companies in spring 2020.

What does this book offer for a Quaker bookshelf? Mr. Tony’s big idea can be replicated almost anywhere. Children who help grow food experience problem solving, care of the land, and the rewards of persistence. They feel needed. Community engagement draws together neighbors in common cause: to work on their environment. Fresh vegetables are a big reward.

Margaret T. Walden lives in Lakewood, Ohio, and currently attends Cleveland (Ohio) Meeting via Zoom. Urban farms and markets are thriving in Northeast Ohio this year.

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