“I write 10 hours a day, five or six days a week. I hate having to stop writing to come to dinner,” Paul Fleischman said in his wise and witty speech to the 200-plus audience gathered at the Mello Center Thursday night.
Fleischman's Seedfolks, published by Harper/Collins in 1997, was the book of choice for the annual "On The Same Page" community reading program.
Founded by businessman and philanthropist George Ow Jr. in 2006, On The Same Page selects one book each year if it is "compelling literature fostering cultural competency and respect, and encourages youth to make and achieve goals." Thousands of copies in both English and Spanish versions are distributed in afterschool programs organized by Teresa Rodriguez, a parent education specialist with Pajaro Valley Unified's Extended Learning Services.
Spanish-speaking parents can read and discuss the same fascinating story with their children in junior and senior high school.
Janet Johns introduced Fleischman—an Aromas resident—impressing listeners with his bibliography of at least 34 titles, many receiving awards from the American Library Association, Newbery Honor, Publisher's Weekly and others.
“Seedfolks is an old word for ancestors,” said Fleischman. “The right title is worth gold. I sometimes have a title before I have a book. My author father used to offer $5 payment for any title my siblings and I provided. I've promised today's equivalent of $1,000 to my three kids. A title is like having a special doorknob and building a house around it.”
Born into a musical family, Fleischman wanted to be a composer. He wanted to hear the voices of 16 instruments at once and write the score. He abandoned that effort when he realized how much he loved words. “Joyous Noise and Seedfolks are my symphonies in words,” he said.
Not only did Fleischman begin his speech with several well-constructed paragraphs in Spanish, poking fun at the English language and detailing why Spanish is so hard to learn, but he also told the story of his Russian immigrant grandparents.
“They had to escape, because they were Jews. They had to bribe officials at borders and were always afraid of being discovered.”
Fleischman builds bridges among cultures in several books. He is a powerful advocate for ending prejudice, doing so through vivid and diverse characters whose personalities remind readers of themselves.
Fleischman recounted the genesis of Seedfolks. “I read a newspaper article about a psychologist who recommended gardening as therapy. Apparently, doctors used to advise gardening for patients, too. My mother took care of the garden at the VA hospital where she worked.”
The 13 characters of Seedfolks include Asian, Hispanic and African-American residents of a Cleveland neighborhood who take an ugly lot used as a trash dump and make a community garden. Seedfolks is a “One Book Program” selection in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Wisconsin—and Watsonville.
The Christian Science Monitor said, “The size of this slim volume belies the profound message of hope it contains.” Venerable singer/songwriter Pete Seeger bought 20 copies.
“I often get ideas from newspaper clippings,” said the author. He keeps a notebook of clippings, words he likes, names of boys and girls, character and plot possibilities. The book underway is for junior and senior high students using real newspaper articles about the dynamic moment in history students now live in.
During the Q&A period, a woman from the audience told everyone that a new community garden has been started at on Rogers Avenue. She invited families to participate.
“What advice do you have to encourage students to become writers?” asked a member of the audience, composed of largely Spanish-speaking parents and mostly bilingual students.
Fleischman had a ready answer. “Two things. One: Read. That's how you learn to write. Two: Write. There is no other way to write but by doing it. Write about what you are interested in.”