This week marks the birthday of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, born in 1774 in Massachusetts.

Author Esmé Raji Codell and illustrator Lynne Rae Perkins think that the birth of this man, whose name just about every elementary-aged child in this country knows, is one to celebrate. When you're done reading their picture book biography about Chapman, Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John "Appleseed" Chapman, you'll likely agree.

“The tales of Johnny Appleseed are three parts legend, one part fact, stories we’re not sure are true,” writes Codell. I like how right away she acknowledges that this is a man we all think we know–but that this mythical figure transcends the Apple Seeds 101 lesson we all get in kindergarten, an often perfunctory one depicting not much more than a man with a tin pot on his head, always with seeds in hand.

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But she really hooked me is with this: “Why should we remember him today, more than two hundred years later, and call him a hero? I will whisper the answer to you, a secret silver-gray green: He lived by example.”

I love the way she directly addresses readers, pulling us close like confidantes to share a secret. Bringing us some lyrical passages and vivid imagery (“the sound of the play of leaves, turning silvery-gray green in the breeze, a sh-hh-hhh like whispered secrets for the bees to carry off”), she delivers a beautiful book about life before our “hard and electrical and moving” world, “the world before the cement was poured and the lights turned on.” It’s also a gentle, non-finger-wagging reminder to children about how it’s their turn (“[o]ne small deed, every day”) to change the landscape of our nation, as Chapman once did.

Codell frames the book with two contemporary children, who are magically transformed back to Chapman’s time. They learn that Chapman grew apples, offering them to pioneers heading west. More importantly, she then adds, “of the many footsteps he took across the frontier in his bare and knobby feet, he left five for us to fill: Use what you have. Share what you have. Respect nature. Try to make peace where there is war. You can reach your destination by taking small steps.”

Words of wisdom that, now more than ever, we need to read.


seed by seed


With her watercolor and gouache illustrations, Perkins creates detailed spreads, bringing Chapman’s world to life on an earth-toned palette. She also has surprises in store for readers: For many of the five “footsteps” Codell names, Perkins switches media. The “use what you have” spread begins with the text displayed on a burlap bag. “Try to make peace where there is war” is rendered on woodcarvings. And the “destination … small steps” spread is embroidered. These are smooth and delightful transitions and bring new layers of texture and depth to the story.

A well-crafted picture book biography that includes food-for-thought for those of any age.

Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.  

SEED BY SEED: THE LEGEND AND LEGACY OF JOHN “APPLESEED” CHAPMAN. Copyright © 2012 by Esmé Raji Codell. Illustrations © 2012 by Lynne Rae Perkins. Published by Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins, New York. Illustration used with permission of the publisher.