Advanced Apple Picking: Part Two of Two

September 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

In addition to making little botanists out of your children (see my previous post), apple picking can inspire some fascinating historical and cultural discussions, especially for the older set. As a quintessentially American pastime dating back to frontier life, apple picking speaks to some of our country’s core values.

Enter Johnny Appleseed, that larger-than-life figure who was allegedly responsible for planting and distributing the seeds for many of our country’s apple trees (that’s right, boys and girls, that apple you’re eating might have descended from a seed this guy planted!). September 26 marks the birth of Johnny Appleseed (whose real name was John Chapman). Last year at this time, I searched the libraries for a book about Chapman to bring to JP’s school; but while there are no shortage of kids books written on this topic, most struck me as inaccessible—a portrait of an historical figure presented without any meaningful context.

This fall, however, the topic has gotten a facelift by Esme Raji Codell and Lynne Rae Perkins, in their newly published and utterly captivating Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John “Appleseed” Chapman (Ages 5-10). What Seed by Seed does that no one has thought to do before is to set the stage by giving kids an up-close-and-personal account of the sights, smells, and sounds of early frontier life.

The book opens with a present-day boy and girl, who are looking out their window at a familiar urban landscape. Suddenly, the scenery outside the window is transformed: highways become fallen branches and buildings become grassy hills. “Once, you could not hear the engines of airplanes in the sky or the sounds of phones ringing. Maybe you could catch the creaking of a wagon wheel, straining against the ruts in the road, or the fall of an axe against the wood.”

Only once we are firmly planted in the wild woods of the 18th century does the story introduce us to a farmer named John Chapman. Here, too, the book departs from its predecessors: rather than continuing with a strict biographical narrative of Chapman’s life, the book is structured into five “mini chapters,” each dedicated to a different value that Chapman embodied as he spread his love of apples across the country. Some of the content is lighthearted (in “Use What You Have,” JP laughed at the notion of Chapman wearing his tin cooking pot as a hat). Other pages are poignant (Chapman moves freely among the Native Americans and white settlers in “Try to make Peace where there is War”).

The illustrations combine paintings with other historical mediums: one spread of blossoming apple trees is done in needlepoint, while another features Lewis-and-Clark style cartography, complete with wildflower sketches and a hand drawn map. At the end of the day, the most enduring message planted by this heartfelt picture book is the difference that a simple farmer made to “change the landscape of our nation. Seed by seed. Deed by deed.” Now you have one more reason to head to your nearest apple orchard.

Chapman wearing his cooking pot as a hat and the aforementioned Lewis and Clark-style map.

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