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).
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! 🙂
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♥ WITH AUTHOR JANNA MATTHIES ♥
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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♥ WITH ILLUSTRATOR KRISTI VALIANT ♥
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.
My favorite spread is when the family is planting the garden. You can see small changes between the detailed sketch and the final painting.
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.
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!
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.
MOM’S PIE CRUST:
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.
FRESH PUMPKIN FOR PIE
“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.
MOM’S PUMPKIN PIE
15 oz puréed pumpkin (you can use fresh or canned pumpkin)
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.
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THE GOODBYE CANCER GARDEN
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
* * * SPECIAL GIVEAWAY!**
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!
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♥ ENCORE! ♥
Enjoy this video of Janna (Music Lady) singing at the Carmel Barnes & Noble Book Fair last year:
♥ ♥ GOOD HEALTH AND HAPPY HARVEST! ♥ ♥
*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.