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When children's author/illustrator Lynne Cherry decided to write a picture book about a tree in the rain forest that affects many lives, she didn't just sit down and start painting scenes based on other people's descriptions. She headed off to Brazil, trekking into the Amazon rain forest to learn about it firsthand.
"For all my books, I travel to the place I'm writing about," says Cherry, a graduate of Temple University's Tyler School of Art. "The feel of the place, the smell, the texture ... somehow it comes out in the illustrations."
That book, "The Great Kapok Tree,'' has been read by millions of children since it was published in 1990. Now, it has been declared a book-of-the-century by the judges for a new awards program that honors children's books with a gardening or ecology theme.
It is one of 40 classic books announced this summer to mark the launch of the Growing Good Kids - Excellence in Children's Literature Awards, co-sponsored by the American Horticultural Society and the Junior Master Gardener program.
The awards are "a way to reward authors and artists for putting out well-written and well-illustrated books that encourage children to go out and discover nature," says David Ellis, communications director for the Virginia-based horticultural society.
Starting next year, recipients of the Growing Good Kids awards will be picked by a committee of eight experts from among the books published in the previous year, says Randy Seagraves, curriculum director for Junior Master Gardener, a national youth-gardening program that began at Texas A&M University's Cooperative Extension and is usually administered through classrooms and 4-H groups.
To be in the running, a book must have "both a powerful story and moving illustrations," Seagraves says.
This year's 40 classic books were selected, by a panel of judges that included children, from titles published during the last century. Some have been beloved by generations of readers, such as "The Tale of Peter Rabbit'' by Beatrix Potter, "The Secret Garden'' by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Dr. Seuss' plea for the environment, "The Lorax.''
Not all the books are old favorites, however. Many were published in recent years, and a handful tell stories from other cultures. "The Empty Pot,'' for instance, is about a young gardener in China during the time of the emperors who learns the importance of truth when his flowers won't grow. "The Lotus Seed'' tells of a Vietnamese girl who holds onto one seed as a link to the past and a symbol of hope as she flees from war and finds a new home in America.
The book-awards project has been in the works for a couple of years, says Seagraves, and not only recognizes some great books, but shows that they can be wonderful teaching tools.
Through its youth-gardening programs with teachers and students, he says, Junior Master Gardener is about to distribute "Literature in the Garden," a curriculum built around six of these classic books.
"A teacher could read to the kids and then make the experience come alive through all sorts of activities that are inspired by the book," from crafts to science.
Cherry is the only author/illustrator to have three books named to the list of 40 classics. The other two are "How Groundhog's Garden Grew,'' which could be set in almost any child's backyard, and "The Shaman's Apprentice,'' co-written with ethno-botanist Mark Plotkin and inspired by his research into medicinal-plant use in a native village in Suriname, in South America.
She is a longtime advocate of using books to encourage children to create gardens and learn about the environment in their own backyards.
"I really do have this goal of seeing a garden in every school in this country," says Cherry, a lifelong gardener who grows vegetables at the farm in the Maryland mountains where she lives with her dogs, Jasper and Rocky. "We need to know how to grow our own food. It should definitely be taught in the schools - and you can link science and social studies and everything else to it."
Besides taking her environmental message to schools through talks and workshops, she includes links on her Web site (www.lynnecherry.com) to Cornell University's Kids Growing Food program.
Cherry has been fascinated by the outdoors since she was a child growing up in Delaware County, Pa.
"It was before the housing boom and before the malls," she says. "We were able to go out of our back door and roam in the woods. It was pretty wild." The destruction of those woods for development awakened her social consciousness, and by age 21 she was testifying before the state legislature in Connecticut, where she lived then, part of a successful effort to halt the transportation of nuclear waste on back roads.
A theme of individual involvement also runs through all her books.
"I ask myself what are the most important issues facing us as a civilization, and then which ones would kids be involved in, and of those, which could I write about that would have happy endings," Cherry says. "They all have hopeful endings. You have to make people realize that you really can make a difference."
(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.