chatting about the goodbye cancer garden with janna matthies and kristi valiant (+ a special giveaway!)

Since October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I invited children’s author Janna Matthies and illustrator Kristi Valiant to tell us about their critically acclaimed picture book, The Goodbye Cancer Garden (Albert Whitman, 2011).

Kristi and Janna

This sensitively written, uplifting story is based on Janna’s personal battle against breast cancer and is an invaluable resource for families facing similar struggles. Without downplaying the seriousness of this life-threatening illness, the book illustrates the importance of focusing on the positive, acknowledging sadness and worry, expressing gratitude and sticking together.

In January, when Janie learns her mom has cancer and probably won’t be better until “pumpkin time,” she suggests the family plant a vegetable garden:

Watching it grow, and eating healthy veggies, will remind us Mom’s getting better. Then before we know it . . . Hello, pumpkins, goodbye cancer!

They continue to nurture their garden of hope and healing as Mom has surgery and endures chemo, hair loss, radiation, aches and fatigue. Step-by-step, day by day, they move toward their goal with the kindness and support of friends, relatives, and of course, each other. Their harvest time celebration, marking the end of treatment with a bounty of homegrown veggies, couldn’t be sweeter.

Kristi’s warm and tender illustrations beautifully capture the heartening journey from seed to fruit, diagnosis to recovery, enriching the message of cultivating wellness by keeping the faith. The Goodbye Cancer Garden informs, offers comfort and hope, and promotes therapeutic discussion.

I thank Janna and Kristi for stopping by today to offer their unique perspectives on this project and for sharing a favorite garden recipe! 🙂

* * * * *


Janna’s family

Why did you decide to write a children’s story based on your own experience with breast cancer?

Creative expression is always one of the ways I deal with the highs and lows of life. I write songs or plant flowers or blog (during my cancer journey only) or write a story. It was clear to me that this was an opportunity to use the hardship my family was going through to uplift others who would later walk a similar path. I’m a firm believer, though not without emotional grapplings along the way, that God will redeem anything if we’re open to it. So while still in treatment, I started playing around with angles for writing the story and eventually found the right one. During my cancer year, gardening had provided a timeline for my recovery—on the day we planted carrots seeds, we discussed that I’d be done with chemo by the time we were eating those carrots. I later knew I’d stumbled on the “right” story when tears came to my eyes over the idea of vegetable gardening as a perfect metaphor for growth, healing and hope.

Janna’s daughter Isabelle with paintings she made shortly after Janna’s diagnosis several years ago.

Did you have a vegetable garden all along, or did your daughter really come up with the idea of planting one?

We have planted a vegetable garden for the past 11 years, since my daughter was about 2 years old. It’s so much fun to watch kids discover the first bud or flower or tiny fruit or big red tomato. And we like eating whole foods, so the garden has grown over the years. My younger son, Ben (7), is the one who really gets into gardening now. He has his own raised bed that he tends on his own—zinnias were his masterpiece this year, because they survived when the veggies succumbed to drought and are blooming still!

Ben harvesting carrots.

What was the hardest part of writing this story? What have you gained by doing it?

The hardest part of writing the story was knowing that it might bring pain to some people who come across it—by this I mean people who have lost loved ones in the fight against cancer and didn’t experience the sunny, happy ending. I was aware of personal friends who are no longer with us and didn’t want to minimize the seriousness of what many people deal with.

Certainly my family experienced fear, sadness and the possibility that disease could take my life. But it didn’t/hasn’t ended that way for me. My book only reflects our experience and, therefore, only one possible ending to the story.

Fortunately with breast cancer there are many happy endings (or new beginnings at life, shall we say), so I took comfort in knowing that my book’s intended audience could be appropriately encouraged by it. By the way, it’s worth noting that I believe life doesn’t end with the death of our bodies. So even as I finished my book with the hope of pumpkin seeds being planted and harvested in years to come, I considered this a symbol of continuing life no matter the circumstance.

Janna’s son Nathan (10) harvesting butternut squash.

What has sharing this book with children been like? What are some of their questions and concerns?

When I’ve shared with groups at schools, etc., there are always several kids in the room currently experiencing cancer in a family member, often breast cancer. They seem excited to have this connection with me and often want to talk about it. There is sometimes a quietness about them at the same time. But the book seems to be a reminder of “I’m not the only one.” Kids will often ask me if I’m okay and wonder if I still have cancer.  They sometimes clap when I say I’m cancer-free.



Do you have any advice for other parents facing serious illnesses?

Well, as I mentioned before, there’s serious and then there’s terminal. I’m clearly not experienced in the latter. My first words of advice are typically to create opportunities for open conversation. Offering honest information and emotional space is critical so your child has a place to process concerns and know what to expect, as much as possible. This is one reason I wrote the book—I hope it’s a tool in starting those conversations. I also recommend keeping up traditions that are important to your family, as much as you’re able. For instance, continuing with our garden despite my fatigue was important. Keeping up the backyard baseball games, spending time outdoors and praying together remained important.

Nathan and Ben with giant zucchini.

Tell us about your garden. What do you typically grow? Any pumpkins this year? Can you share a favorite recipe you like to make from your produce?

At the moment, under imminent threat of frost, we have string beans, romaine lettuce, spinach, kale, tomatoes, carrots, parsley and one pathetic basil plant. Earlier in the year we also had zucchini and cucumbers. And we have lots of perennial flowers still hanging on. We have actually never grown pumpkins because of limited space, though we’ve done sugar baby watermelons and butternut squash. Our dear friend and across-the-street neighbor shares his garden generously with us and has planted pumpkins for us there (as in the photo in my book).

A few Saturdays ago I pulled up a huge crop of basil and made pesto, which is now frozen for winter use. Here’s the recipe, which we like on rotini or sometimes spread on crusty bread with chicken, roast veggies, and melted mozzarella on top:

Simple basil pesto  (adjust quantities to your taste)

2 cloves garlic
½  cup walnuts
½ cup olive oil
2 cups basil
½ cup parmesan

In food processor, mince garlic then add walnuts and pulse until chopped well. Add olive oil and basil and blend until it’s a nice, wet paste. Mix in parmesan. Immediately add pesto to hot pasta. Serve with a garden salad and dig in!

Janna with her family today.

* * * * *



Why did you decide to take on this project?

I was a bit intimidated when I initially read the manuscript, because I knew this was an important picture book. This is a story with the potential to give kids and parents hope and a lovely way to deal with a horrible situation. It was an honor to be asked to illustrate it, and I pray it helps in the healing process for many.

What was the best part of working on it? The most challenging?

The best part: I believe the best part is hearing how the book has touched individual lives. So many families are affected by cancer, and it’s such a scary thing to both kids and parents. This book encourages doing something positive together as a family as part of the recovery process.

The most challenging part: I felt a big sense of responsibility to make my half of the story as inspiring as what Janna brought to the story through the words. That’s a tall order! Janna did a beautiful job.

Have you shared this book for school visits or bookstore appearances? If so, how have the children reacted?

At my bookstore appearances for this book, there is usually at least one adult who is visibly touched by the book because they know someone who has cancer and has small kids. We talk and cry and hug over it. I haven’t had a chance yet to talk with kids going through it.

How did you make the pictures for this book? Did you base the characters on Janna’s real life family? Do you have a favorite illustration?

Janna and I had met at an SCBWI writing conference before the publisher matched us up for this book. Usually I don’t know the authors of the books I illustrate. The publisher keeps us away from each other, so the illustrator has the freedom to bring their own life to the story. But since I knew Janna, I emailed her some questions, and we felt like sneaky kids talking behind the teacher’s back! I didn’t base the characters on Janna’s own family, because she made it clear this was a fictional family.

I started illustrating this book by doing some character sketches of the family until the publisher and I agreed on the look of the family. Then I took the blocks of text that the designer sent me and played with moving them around and creating small thumbnail sketches to get an idea of pacing and where I wanted full-page illustrations versus small spot illustrations.

I blew up the thumbnail sketches into full pages and redrew them with more details. After the publisher approved the sketches, I moved on to the final paintings.

Kristi’s thumbnail sketches.

My favorite spread is when the family is planting the garden. You can see small changes between the detailed sketch and the final painting.

Gardening sketch
Final art

My other favorite illustration is the cover. Covers are difficult, because you want to convey what the book is about and the main emotion of the story. I sketched pages of ideas and narrowed it down to 3 that I felt showed that this little girl’s mom had cancer and that this was a warm, loving story of hope.

My whole process is done digitally, meaning that I sketch right on my computer using a Wacom tablet and an electronic pen (not a mouse). I’ve spent years creating a custom pencil brush in Photoshop that feels and looks like a real pencil to me. I put my pencil sketch on the top layer in Photoshop and paint the color below it using a variety of custom brushes. I love working digitally because it’s so easy to move things around, recolor the background or any little part, resize things, and play around knowing that I have an “undo” button. Now when I sketch with a real pencil and paper, I’m constantly trying to hit an imaginary “undo” button!

Do you have a vegetable garden? If so, what do you typically plant? Can you share a favorite recipe you like to make from garden produce?

Regrettably, we didn’t plant a garden this year, but in the past, we’ve planted tomatoes, cilantro, basil, and oregano. I grew up with a full garden every year of a huge variety of veggies. My favorite veggies to eat straight from the garden are green beans, green peppers and cherry tomatoes. I keep intending to plant them – next year.

Kristi just whipped up a batch of salsa. Yum!

I made fresh pesto a whole lot when we were growing basil. Absolutely delicious with whole grain crackers! And we also love to make fresh salsa with tomatoes, red onion, garlic, lime juice, a bit of adobo peppers, and lots of cilantro. I’ve found people either love or hate cilantro. We love it!

Kristi with her daughters at the pumpkin patch.
Adorable punkins with pumpkins.

Pumpkins play a role in THE GOODBYE CANCER GARDEN, and pumpkin pie is one of my all-time favorite foods. Not just any pumpkin pie, though. It has to be my mom’s recipe. The spices are just perfect in hers, and seem off to me when I try other pumpkin pies. Maybe because of the large amounts of my mom’s pumpkin pie that I’ve inhaled over the years, I may be a bit biased. But try this recipe, and see.


1-1/3 cup sifted regular flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup Crisco shortening
3 tablespoons water

Spoon the flour lightly into measuring cup. Combine flour and salt in mixing bowl. Add Crisco. With a pastry blender or 2 knives, cut in Crisco until uniform; mixture should be coarse. Sprinkle with water, a tablespoon at a time; toss with fork. Work dough into a firm ball with your hands.

On a floured surface, roll dough to a circle about 1.5” larger than inverted pie plate (9-inch deep-dish for pumpkin pie). Gently ease dough into pie plate without stretching. Fold under the top edge to make it double thickness around the rim and flute it with your fingers.


“Pie pumpkins” are sweeter and less grainy than the usual jack-o-lantern type pumpkins. Grocery stores or your farmer’s market should carry them during pumpkin season. One pie pumpkin yields more than enough for one pie; I’ve gotten over 5 cups of pumpkin out of a bigger one.

Cut the pumpkin in half. I’ve found the best tool for this is a cheap, little, jack-o-lantern carving knife. Scrape the insides out using an ice cream scoop. If you’d like, save the seeds and roast them in the oven with a bit of salt, oil, and/or cinnamon or any spices. Mmmm…

You can cook the pumpkin several different ways: steaming, baking, pressure cooker, or microwave. I stuck mine in a microwave bowl on high for 15 minutes or until it’s soft enough to scoop out easily.

Scoop it into a blender or blend it using a stick blender until it’s smooth. Use 15 oz for the pumpkin pie recipe below. It comes to about 1 2/3 cup if you don’t have a kitchen scale.


15 oz puréed pumpkin (you can use fresh or canned pumpkin)
2 eggs
¾ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cloves
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ginger
1 cup fat-free evaporated milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix well sugar, salt, and spices in a small bowl. Beat eggs briefly in a large bowl. Stir in pumpkin and sugar-spice mixture. Gradually stir in evaporated milk. Pour into unbaked 9-inch deep-dish pie crust. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees; bake 40 minutes or until butter knife inserted near center comes out clean. Sometimes it takes a lot longer to bake if you use fresh pumpkin. Refrigerate leftovers. Yum…

I feel I must confess that I’ve eaten probably close to a whole pumpkin pie in the last couple days. I made 2 pies 2 days ago and now there’s less than a half of one left. I could blame it on my husband and daughters, but I feel I’ve done the majority of the eating. I better put in some extra Zumba classes and wait a whole week before I make another pie.

* * * * *

written by Janna Matthies
illustrated by Kristi Valiant
published by Albert Whitman, 2011
Full-color Picture Book for ages 4-8, 32 pp.
Cool themes: Health, cancer, healing, family, gardening, vegetables, food
*Starred Review* from School Library Journal
**CCBC Choices 2012 List
***Best Foreign Children’s Book, 2011 Sharjah International Book Fair


The publisher has generously offered two brand new copies of The Goodbye Cancer Garden for a special Breast Cancer Awareness Month giveaway.

To enter, simply leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EDT) Thursday, October 25, 2012. As per usual, you may earn extra entries by blogging, tweeting, Facebooking about the giveaway, or by sending an email to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Winner will be notified by email the last week of October. Open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!

* * * * *


L to R: Kristi, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Peggy Archer and Janna at the B&N Bookfair in Carmel, Indiana.

♥ Visit Janna Matthies’s Official Website/blog

Enjoy this video of Janna (Music Lady) singing at the Carmel Barnes & Noble Book Fair last year:

Visit Kristi Valiant’s Official Website and blog



*Spreads from The Goodbye Cancer Garden reproduced with permission of the illustrator, text copyright © 2011 Janna Matthies, illustrations © 2011 Kristi Valiant, published by Albert Whitman & Co. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


47 thoughts on “chatting about the goodbye cancer garden with janna matthies and kristi valiant (+ a special giveaway!)

  1. This looks wonderful. What a great way to help kids cope with family illness. I especially love the picture that shows hair loss can be considered another form of beautiful!


    1. That illustration does show that while you can’t change certain things, there’s more than one way of reacting to them. Something to think about and discuss, which is why this book is so fabulous.


  2. What a wonderful post and beautiful book, both in its message and soothing illustrations! This is truly an important book for the so many families struggling with cancer. I can just see the kids clapping when Janna tells them she is cancer free. Here’s to her continued good health!


    1. Was tickled to see you in the pic, Rebecca. The bookfair looks like it was such fun. Janna inspires us all. Love her singing, too :).


  3. Thank you so much Jama for this lovely review and bringing my attention to this beautiful important book. I must say I am a little teary eyed reading all the stories but this will be good for children and adults. My thanks and hugs go to both Janna Matthies and Kristi Valiant. Here is the link to my post on Twitter.

    Have a wondereful day.


    1. This is definitely a wonderful book for adults and children to read together — Janna and Kristi have done a beautiful job with a difficult subject. Thanks for tweeting about the giveaway, Margie.


  4. We’re dealing with terminal cancer in our extended family, so your post touches my heart. The book sounds like such a loving way to help children who are in a difficult situation. I’m really glad you wrote it, Janna. And, Kristi, you know I love, love your illustrations. You’ve done an absolutely wonderful job with this very special story. Thanks to both of you for sharing here.


  5. What a beautiful post and book on a difficult topic. I’m so glad Janna is doing well now. Kristi’s illos are so amazing. Hubby already makes a fab pesto, but I’m going to try Kristi’s pumpkin pie recipe!


  6. It’s a lovely post, by both the author and the illustrator. I just spoke with one of the nurses today who is subbing where my husband is. She shared that she is a breast cancer survivor & was so proud of the fact that she is back working again, and thought by now she might not be here. I will tell her about the book. Although she is older, she may have younger ones in her family who will love the book. It is good to be open and honest about serious things with children. They imagine so much, and just want to know whatever truth we can share. Thanks much for a beautiful book, Janna and Kristi, and I’m so happy for you Janna. Thanks again Jama!


    1. Thanks for sharing that wonderful story. It’s very heartening to hear about survivors — like Janna’s story, it gives us all so much hope about the advances being made in treatment and disease management. And you’re so right about children — it’s important to facilitate dialogue whenever possible. A difficult subject to broach, making books like Janna’s so very valuable.


  7. This is such a wonderful picture book, written and illustrated by two wonderful people. The story is very uplifting, and the illustrations are warm and comforting. Thanks for a great blog post! And I love that Jama included so many smiling photos.


  8. What an amazing book. Good for Kristi and Janna for creating a book that deals with cancer in such an accessible way. Nowadays, cancer is becoming more and more prominent, I’m sure everyone knows of someone who is fighting it right now or has suffered from it in the past.
    For me, 2012 is the year that cancer features a little too heavily in. With the passing of my FIL only a few months ago, we’re getting ourselves ready to deal with the stem cel transplantation that my MIL is undergoing soon.
    Thanks for reviewing this book and for the lovely interview with Janna 🙂


    1. Yes, sadly cancer seems to affect practically every one of us in some way. What a tough year for your family — all the best and lots of prayers for your MIL. Keep us posted on her progress.


  9. Wonderful to read about the process of creating this beautiful book on the fifth anniversary of the loss of my dear friend Mary to breast cancer. Congratulations, Janna and Kristi!


    1. Sorry for your loss, Tracy. Just as Janna said, part of the difficulty of writing this story was that not all endings are happy ones. Perhaps even more reason to keep the channels of dialogue open — remembering those we’ve lost in happier times, and acknowledging their brave battles.


  10. Janna and Kristi did an exquisite job with this book. I love it, and I love reading about the thought process behind the book. Oh, and the recipes… yum! I’ll be testing all of them out, with our fruits and veggies from our garden. Thanks for sharing!!


  11. Wonderful interview, and beautiful book on such a difficult topic. Kristi’s illustrations are adorable, I’m a big fan of her work. Glad you’re doing well, Janna.


  12. This post is absolutely delicious! And this book is a visual feast which fills you with hope. Thanks, Janna and Kristi!


    1. Working together for a positive goal is a great way to cope with the uncertainty, fear, and worry of facing a serious illness. This is a much needed book, and Janna and Kristi did a great job with it.


  13. Well Kristi…I don’t have a recipe to share, but I would like to share the fact that I too use creative expression to deal with the highs and lows of life. And I believe you have a winner in the “Goodbye Cancer Garden”. Congratulations on your calling and I know your new book will help many families as they face the monster.


  14. After seeing the link to this beautiful book on Facebook, I have gone back several times to read this wonderful interview. Janna and Kristi worked well together to produce this fine work of art. The story is written with much love and sensitivity, which is apparent in the beautiful illustrations.


    1. Glad you enjoyed the interview, Jean. Thanks for coming back to read. Janna and Kristi handled a difficult subject so well, and the book will be helpful and inspiring to so many.


  15. What an inspiring interview! I loved reading the story behind the story. My mother-in-law is a breast cancer survivor; how rich our lives are because God granted her extra seasons! I’m anxious to share this book with my girls. Thanks for the personal touches, like the family photos and recipes that make this come alive. And, of course, Kristi is my favorite illustrator!


    1. Thanks for the lovely comment, Dorina. So glad to hear your mother-in-law survived her battle with the disease. You and Kristi are a dynamite PB team :).


Comments are closed.