Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld was a children’s book editor for over 10 years before deciding to write her own books presenting “science for kids in creative ways that captivate and challenge them.” Her latest, Secrets of the Garden, features an inquisitive young character, Alice, who invites young children to look closely along with her at the complex web of nature.

Find more books that will get children out and about in nature.

Did anything in particular inspire you to write this book?

Oh gosh, yes, I grew up on a farm in upstate New York, and some of my best childhood memories come from helping my mom in her amazing vegetable garden. She had such a green thumb and could grow anything you could imagine—tomatoes, broccoli, peas…I especially liked being right behind her when she thinned the “baby” carrots, making room for the rest to grow. She’d toss them in a pile, and I’d rinse them off with the hose and eat them like candy.

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We all know it’s vital for our elementary school children to learn basic science concepts like photosynthesis, the energy cycle, food webs....Principals and teachers in urban areas have been expressing some concern to me lately over what I can only call “nature phobia” among their youngest students—they’re frightened of bugs, nervous about slimy things, worried about getting their feet wet, afraid to climb a tree. That kind of uncertainty comes, I think, simply from lack of experience. Just a little exposure to nature every day can help a kid build confidence and begin to feel the deep connection we all have to the natural world.

Kirkus said that your work allows kids to “experience both the good and the bad right along with Alice.” Why is it important that kids know about the frustrations of being a gardener, too?

Well, Alice is a keen observer, of course, so she notices that we’re just one part of a great web of life. We need to eat to stay alive, but so do all the other animals. A gardener can try to “do battle” with all the garden invaders, or she can learn to keep the garden in balance. If there’s a “bad” bug that eats your cabbage, then you can look for a “good” bug that eats the bad bug. But really, there is no good and bad in nature. There is just one big, interdependent web, and we all depend on all the parts of it being healthy and in balance.  

A lot of the text in this book occurs in little side dialogues with the characters—the family and also two chickens have side conversations. Did you envision this layout, or work with Priscilla Lamont, the illustrator, to frame the material this way?

When I thought of having Alice’s backyard chickens be the ones to cart out the charts and diagrams, my wonderful editor, Nancy Siscoe, thought it was really funny right off the bat. So, they became our “science chickens,” secretly studying and reading up on things in their coop and then strutting out with the scientific information when needed. I think the names “Maisy and Daisy” popped into Nancy’s head immediately and they stuck.

My dad ran a hatchery and raised chickens on our farm. When I turned 8, I was given a small flock of hens to look after. I collected their eggs every day and sold them for 25 cents a dozen to family and friends. In fourth grade, I won the blue ribbon at the science fair for my study of the embryonic development of the chick. So, you might say I learned science from chickens, too. Ha! I can hear my editor laughing now!

What did you like best about the illustrations—what surprised you?

I was surprised by and absolutely adore the snail on the front cover. Have you ever seen such a likable little snail?! Priscilla is so funny and so talented at bringing even the smallest details to life.  

Do you see any parallels between writing and gardening?

While I am researching and writing one book, I often discover the seed of what will soon grow into the next book. That seed metaphor really holds true so often. I wrote a book for Knopf a few years ago called Wild Lives about the Bronx Zoo and the pioneering conservationists of the early 20th century. In the process of researching that book, I was led to a hand-drawn “treasure map” in a dusty old, long-forgotten file. William Hornaday, the founder of the Bronx Zoo, had been on an expedition to Montana to capture bison, when he discovered some interesting fossils. He drew a map that eventually led the great fossil hunter Barnum Brown to the discovery of the first Tyrannosaurus rex.

Finding a treasure map! What could be more exciting than that? That led to my book, Finding the First T. rex. Research is like that. There’s always some exciting new treasure to discover! 

Jessie Grearson is a freelance writer and teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. When she isn’t reading, writing or teaching, she enjoys dreaming up new recipes, some of which she enters into cooking competitions, and all of which she tries out on her husband and two daughters.