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author juanita hill and the cover of the book grow Author Juanita Hill and the cover of her book Grow: A Novel in Verse. (Photos courtesy Peachtree Press)

Juanita Havill: The Book Gardener

Writers, like gardeners, plant seeds that grow

By Maya Williams | March 30 , 2010

Author Juanita Havill has discovered that writing and gardening have something in common.

"You plant a seed and you have the seed-growing idea, and you have to cultivate it, feed it, water it, and take care of it," Havill said. "You have to have sunshine and time to help develop it. That's like creating stories."

The author of Grow: A Novel in Verse, Havill is a prolific writer of picture books and novels for young readers. She was born in Indiana and now lives in Sonoita, Arizona. When she was a child, Havill loved to read historical fiction. She was also a fan of the poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

"I think it was the reading that I did that made me want to write," she said. "I [used to want] to be a poet. When I was smaller I would make up poems before I could write."

Her first book was published in 1986, and she has been writing ever since. Grow combines both her love of poetry and novels.

The book is about a 40-year-old woman named Berneetha who wants to plant a community garden in a vacant lot, and 12-year-old Kate Sibley who helps her. Unfortunately, the city has other plans for the property.

The idea for the book was an offshoot of a police brutality incident in Los Angeles, California. An African-American man named Rodney King was beaten by police officers. The beating was caught on tape and viewed around the world, resulting in the arrest of the officers. When they were acquitted, riots broke out in Los Angeles.

In following the news of the event, Havill heard an African–American woman ask the question: "How could that happen in my town?" That woman then brought her neighbors together to plant a community garden, planting the seed for Havill's story.

Her original idea was to have Berneetha tell the story in first person. Kate was going to be 5 years old and not 12. Havill had second thoughts when she began to consider her young audience. She realized her readers would relate better to the point of view of a 12-year-old. That's how Kate got top billing.

The garden itself also becomes a main character, with Havil taking readers inside the feelings and emotions of the plants in the garden. Nature has a welcoming aspect that Havill says she cannot resist. Whenever she is sad or lonely, all she has to do is "go for a walk and be with the trees, flowers, and crunchy snow in the winter," she says.

Havill cherishes nature and loves to write about it.

"I find pleasure in nature," she said. "There's always an education [in it]."

She has advice for kids who want to be authors, as well as for kids who want to be gardeners.

"The first thing I need to tell them is read, read, read," she said of those who long to be writers. "Observe. Really pay attention to things that are going on outside of you. Pay attention to your feelings, what's going on inside of you. There is a lot that you can learn from listening and watching."

Gardeners need to garden.

"Start! Dig a hole and plant a seed!" she said. "[Also], you have to do research on all the creatures who want to foil you in your attempt to garden. You have to foil them when they are eating up your plants."

Havill is an advocate of Earth Day and keeping the planet clean. She believes wild lands should be kept wild. Her message to kids about Earth is simple and to the point.

"Shouldn't we have Earth Day every day?" she said.

For more about Havill's latest book, Grow: A Novel in Verse, check out Kid Reporter Maya Williams' review.

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