Q: What inspired you to write Miguel's Community Garden?
A: A few years ago, I visited a friend’s backyard garden space. Even before I stepped through the gate, I saw plants and trees growing everywhere. He had—and still has— this amazing array of fruits and vegetables growing. I mean blueberries, raspberries, cherries, lemons, herbs, peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, pumpkins and more!
At the time of my visit, his daughter was around preschool age, and she was so comfortable in the space. She navigated the garden with such ease and confidence. This is what inspired the Where in the Garden series.
It was Amara (the African American character who is featured in Amara’s Farm, Book #1 of the series) that I imagined first, but then the other characters soon followed, especially since I wanted to ensure that the children were diverse.
As for sunflowers, I am a huge fan of sunflower seeds, and this helped cement which plant Miguel would focus on. I even incorporated sunflower seeds into the recipe that is included in the back of the book—a Sunflower Seed Salad, yum!
As a side note, I just visited this same friend again this summer and got to experience his garden again and take home a bounty of delicious fruit.
Q: This is the second in your Where in the Garden series--what do you hope kids learn about gardening and nature from the books, especially community gardens in this case?
A: My hope for these books is that children get excited about new kinds of fruits and vegetables to try which can ultimately help bolster a healthy lifestyle.
As I was writing these books, I worked to incorporate produce and plants that were both familiar and unfamiliar to children, providing them with names of these fruits, veggies, and plants with the goal that it will get them interested in tasting something new.
For example, some children may have never tasted a kumquat (featured in Amara’s Farm) or an artichoke (featured in Miguel’s Community Garden). By introducing them to these yummy treats, I want children to begin to familiarize themselves and eventually taste something new.
Additionally, the idea of a community garden is a beautiful one because it underscores getting into the garden and growing things together with others. This also means that those who plant and care for gardens together can share the garden’s bounty with one another, too, just as we see the characters do at the end of Miguel’s Community Garden.
I also want to note that each of these books includes a recipe that children can make with an adult helper AND I have created some fun “Cooking with JaNay” videos where I help two kid chefs make the featured recipes. So much fun! Here’s the link to Cooking with JaNay: Miguel’s Recipe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7Ft2udSV3w
Q: What do you think Samara Hardy’s illustrations add to the book?
A: Samara’s artwork is better than I could have ever imagined! The way she captures produce and plants is amazing. They are so beautiful.
For example, the endpages she created were so tantalizing that I have since made them into aprons (which you can actually see me wearing in the “Cooking with JaNay” videos). Also, her characters are adorable and so endearing. Everything about Samara’s artwork is spectacular and I am incredibly happy that I have had a chance to work with her on these books.
Q: How did you first get interested in writing children’s picture books?
A: I have always loved writing stories as far back as I could remember. I was the kid who was often front-and-center acting things out our reciting poetry. As a matter of fact, my sixth-grade teacher made a prediction way back then that I would become an author.
After graduating with my BA in psychology from UCLA, I decided I was going to try to get published. Then, for years and years I put in lots of hard work reading as many books as I could, writing and revising, taking classes and workshops, and so on.
But all the hard work paid off! It took me about eight years to get my first book, Imani’s Moon, published (from conception of idea to holding the book in my hand) and I am so grateful for all I learned during that time. Writing books for children, especially books that feature diverse characters, is really so rewarding, fulfilling, and fun! I feel so lucky to be able to do this work!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have many projects in the works. Actually, I have 10 books publishing just this year, in 2022! That speaks to how busy I have been.
Currently, I am working on finishing Book #4 of the Where in the Garden series, which is coming out in 2023. I also have a series of soon-to-be-published early chapter books called Love Puppies (2023, Scholastic), which is exciting since this will be my first time publishing longer books.
I also have some nonfiction Little Golden Books coming out, several new picture books including Jam, Too and On Our Way (forthcoming 2024, Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House), These are the Seeds (forthcoming 2024, Kids Can Press), and more! But at this very moment, I am working on poetry and writing middle grade novels.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Yes! Feel free to check out my “Cooking with JaNay” videos that supplement the Where in the Garden books (here’s the link: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLfrAnYPbVmRjvF158YTmiijYq0APv_aPZ.
Also, I have a free newsletter that I put out periodically where I talk about writing, child development, literacy, etc. as well as talk about my books and host giveaways. I actually am wrapping up a giveaway for a signed copy of Miguel’s Community Garden and an apron!
You can sign up for the newsletter on my website www.janaybrownwood.com, which you can check out if you’d like to learn more about me and my books and also to book me to come speak at schools, libraries, and events in your community!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb