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Lynne Cherry: Digging in the Dirt, by Katherine Pierpont

Update on best-selling children's book author and illustrator Lynne Cherry

This October Lynne Cherry produced and directed eight short documentary films which show that kids have the power to bring about change.

Lynne Cherry Young Voices for the Planet DVD

The films, Young Voices for the Planet, are beautifully shot in high definition and are ideal for classroom inspiration. For example, one of the films on the DVD is Olivia's Birds and the Oil Spill featuring 11-year old New York artist Olivia Bouler whose 500 bird paintings raised $200,000 for the National Audubon Society's bird rescue efforts after BP's 2010 oil spill. In addition, Team Marine students helped ban plastic bags in Santa Monica, CA; 11-year old Felix spearheaded the planting of one million trees in Germany; and Anya, a young Siberian citizen-scientist, worked with Woods Hole Research Center climate scientists collecting Arctic meltwater.

"The Young Voices for the Planet films focus on empowerment," says Cherry. "Youth can inspire us all to embrace the seriousness of climate change and other issues and take action to reduce the carbon footprint of our homes, schools and communities. Just as they pressured us to stop smoking and littering, wear seat belts, and recycle, kids create change from the roots up."

Today, Lynne Cherry is artist-in-residence at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, NY, and at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.

The films have been screened at the UN, the COP15 climate talks in Copenhagen, at numerous conferences, science centers, and museums, as well as in classrooms nationwide. They are available for purchase (and viewing in low resolution) from www.YoungVoicesForThePlanet.com.

When we last intereviewed this accomplished author/illustrator and environmental activist her goal was a garden in every schoolyard.

Lynne Cherry

Lynne Cherry is most at ease when covered in dirt. A master gardener, environmental activist and renowned author and illustrator of over 30 books for children, Lynne pays homage to the Earth in every aspect of her life. Her lifelong love of nature has won her great acclaim in magazines, newspapers, TV and radio and her books such as A River Ran Wild (Harcourt Brace/Gulliver Green, 1992), The Great Kapok Tree (Harcourt Brace/Gulliver Green, 1990) and Flute's Journey (Harcourt Brace/Gulliver Green, 1997) have been used as springboards to launch campaigns to clean up rivers, save forests and protect migratory birds. Now she is setting her sights on a project that she has long carried close to her heart – an idea she refers to as "the greening of the schoolyard." Lynne Cherry's grandest vision yet is that in the next 10 years, every school in the country will have a garden – and instead of taking a field trip to the local nature center, all kids will have to do to learn more about their world is to simply step outside.

The world outdoors.
From the time that she was a small child, Lynne was intrigued with the mysteries of the whole other world that existed outdoors. During our conversation she shared that she just recently unearthed a school report she had written in the fifth grade where she had faithfully sketched and described in detail the wildlife she saw in "postage stamp-sized" Grace Park Woods in the town in Pennsylvania where she grew up. "I didn't have a garden at my elementary school, but I did have teachers who let me go over to the wood lot next to my school and let me do my writing out there instead," she remembered.

Author Lynne Cherry gardening

Lynne is presented with a giant cauliflower that students were inspired to grow after reading her book How Groundhog's Garden Grew. Lynne's illustrations almost buzz with life.

In fact, Lynne's early love of nature was fostered at both school and at home. Her parents were both big nature lovers (her mother, Helen Cogancherry, is also a children's book illustrator) and were eager to show Lynne how to plant and maintain a garden of her very own. "I've always been fascinated by gardening!" Lynne laughed. She went on to talk about how many of her friends and family were in disbelief when she rototilled the front yard of her farmhouse in Maryland. "The first year it was a little scraggly, but now it's full of azaleas and peonies and rhododendrons and all of these wonderful native plants and herbs. It's just so beautiful and it's really low maintenance."

Eat your vegetables.
And having a garden instead of a front yard has proven more than convenient – when Lynne cooks, all she does is go outside and pick her ingredients from her garden. As her garden flourished with all sorts of herbs and vegetables, she began thinking about how exciting it would be for kids to grow and harvest their own fruits and vegetables – all the while learning a myriad of cross-curricular lessons in the perfect outdoor classroom. The more she thought about it, the more her enthusiasm for bringing the idea of a schoolyard garden to every school grew. When she learned that obesity and other childhood problems were at an all-time high, Lynne knew it was the perfect time to reach as many kids as she could. She set out to spread the word that eating right with fresh fruits and vegetables and giving back to nature can start at school.

An army of gardeners.
Lynne is by no means a lone sentinel in her quest to see a garden in every schoolyard – friends such as Margaret Barker with the Kids Growing Food project and Alice Waters, founder of The Edible Schoolyard and Chez Panisse in CA, are just as passionate – not to mention the countless number of people she's met lecturing about this project all across the country. Lynne also has wonderful gardening information and a schoolyard garden tool kit on her own website, www.lynnecherry.com.

She views her role in spreading the word about these programs as more media outreach. "I get asked to speak a lot, so whenever I give a talk or do a radio show, I mention these programs that can help schools and teachers get started in the basics of planting a schoolyard garden," she said.

"I'm trying to show teachers, parents and communities that with planting a garden, you're teaching kids where their food comes from, how it grows and how to grow it. You're connecting them to the natural world."

A square of earth.
Around the time that Lynne was visiting schools to talk about her book How Groundhog's Garden Grew (Blue Sky Press, 2003) – an ecological tale about a groundhog with a green thumb and the principles of renew, reuse and recycle – she began to feel out her young audiences to see if they'd be interested in growing a garden of their own. She was pleased to see that her suspicions were correct and that kids were really thrilled to be be outdoors and to be learning about the ins and outs of a garden – when they weren't really aware how much they truly were learning.

Author Lynne Cherry

"I've always been fascinated by gardening!" Lynn laughed, surrounded by her garden in her front yard.

"I was seeing that these kids were really excited about learning and they weren't asking, 'Why do I have to learn that?' So, when I was doing my school talks, I began bringing my pick ax with me in the back of my car. I'd say, 'Let's go out and dig up a square of earth.' Then with a magnifying glass, we'd look at what's in a square yard of grass. One teacher told me that as kids were asking questions, she just checked off all the standards they were covering – science, math, social studies, etc." Even more so, kids would be bringing home what they learned in their edible schoolyard to their families and in turn, teach their parents to cook and eat nutritious food. Lynne was also quick to add that kids would be turning away from TV and computer games and trade those pastimes for fresh air and exercise and perhaps most important, some quality family time. "It's just so win-win," Lynne commented. "And I think it's a really inspiring idea – and that's all I'm really doing, just passing along a really good idea."

For now, Lynne Cherry is going after her goal of a garden in every schoolyard similar to the way in which she approaches planting a new garden – she's determined to never lose sight of the final outcome and its benefits and is just going to keep on digging.

Katherine Pierpont, senior editor Teaching K-8 magazine.

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