Monday, April 04, 2011

"First Garden," A New Children's Book About Michelle Obama's White House Kitchen Garden

An interview with author Robbin Gourley...and Kristina Schake, the First Lady's Director of Communications, weighs in on the unapproved project...
Perfectly timed to celebrate National Gardening Month, Clarion Books will today release First Garden: The White House Garden And How it Grew, which breaks ground as the first artistic children's book about First Lady Michelle Obama's world-famous Kitchen Garden. Written and illustrated by Robbin Gourley, the book includes official White House recipes, and comes a year ahead of Mrs. Obama's own book about her signature initiative, which will be published in April of 2012. (Top: The cover of the book; inset is Mrs. Obama and helpers at the Spring re-planting on March 16)

Legendary chef and children's cooking/gardening advocate Alice Waters, creator of the national The Edible Schoolyard campaign, wrote the forward for First Garden. It has already received a coveted starred review from the American Library Association's Booklist.

In soft watercolors and engaging text in a 48-page hardcover edition aimed at kids ages 6-9, Gourley tells the story of the Kitchen Garden from the first shovel-load of dirt onward, with lovely images of Mrs. Obama, her young helpers from Bancroft Elementary School, and the White House chefs in action. The text, which promotes the delights of local foods and healthy eating, echoes Mrs. Obama's rhetoric for the Let's Move! campaign:

"As First Lady and as a mom, Mrs. Obama was concerned about the health of the American people," Gourley writes. "She believed we should think about what we eat and where our food comes from. And she wanted her family--all families--to become healthier by eating more vegetables and fruits together at the table."

The book also takes a rollicking look at other gardens at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, such as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's World War II Victory Garden. There are quotes from gardening-minded presidents (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams) sprinkled across the pages, and young readers will be charmed by the details about presidential children, pets, and livestock (sheep, ponies, a goat, a cow...). (Above: An illustration of Mrs. Roosevelt, and one of President Woodrow Wilson's sheep)

Gourley, 59, a native of North Carolina and the mother of two grown children, has written three other well-received children's books focused on cooking, family, and community. She told Obama Foodorama that she created First Garden because she's thrilled that Mrs. Obama is promoting healthy eating and gardening for children.

"It's the right message at the right time on so many levels for kids and communities," Gourley said. "It's a wonderful subject."

Gourley credits a letter she received in 2009 from the East Wing as her inspiration for First Garden. That summer, she sent one of her earlier books, Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You A Pie, to Mrs. Obama at the White House, with a note praising the First Lady's emerging nutrition campaign and the Kitchen Garden. Months later, she received a thank-you note from the East Wing.

"It was basically a form letter," Gourley said. "But a note card fluttered out of it with a recipe for cucumber soup. The light bulb went off in my head: I should do a children's book about the garden, with recipes."

Clarion Books agreed to fast track the book for the 2011 release, a feat Gourley dubbed "a miracle" in the molasses-paced world of children's publishing. To create the artwork, Gourley got a look at the Kitchen Garden in the Fall of 2009 during a White House tour, and then based her paintings on hundreds of photos of Mrs. Obama, the chefs, and the student helpers at work during harvests and plantings.

"I used every bit of pictorial research that could support my drawings," Gourley said, adding that during the creative phase in 2010, she re-did her portrait (above) of the First Family multiple times. "I painted every day from March until June."

The East Wing weighs in...
An advance copy of First Garden was sent to the White House in February, Gourley said. But when queried about the book, Kristina Schake, the First Lady's Director of Communications, didn't comment on whether anyone in the East Wing had read First Garden. But she did comment on White House participation. The White House does not "endorse" the book, Schake said.

"As you know, the First Lady has reached agreement with Crown Publishers to write her own book about the White House Kitchen Garden," Schake said. "Neither Mrs. Obama nor others in the White House were involved in the preparation of this book, nor endorse it."

That's a standard response; the White House has strict guidelines about the use of the Obama name or images for commercial purposes. It's sometimes tricky territory, because the President and First Lady are public figures. And it hasn't prevented the creation of thousands of Obama-themed products and projects, from books to food to dolls to clothing.

Mrs. Obama's forthcoming book for Crown, a division of Random House, is her first salvo as an author. The inspirational book will include favorite First Family recipes and Obama family stories, resources for school and community gardens, as well as the history of the Kitchen Garden, told in the First Lady's "own words." It will be published as a glossy hardcover, as an e book, and as an "enhanced multimedia e book" that will include video elements.

Official White House recipes included...
While not "endorsing" First Garden, the White House did allow the inclusion of official recipes created by the chefs. The White House issues recipes for public events and for the holiday season, and they're also given to media outlets to accompany interviews with the chefs, including for TV appearances. Those are the recipes collected on the sidebar of this blog.

Gourley, after what she said was a long negotiation with the East Wing, was given permission to use White House recipes that had been previously released, with the stipulation that the text on the cover of her book not include the words "White House recipes" (the cover reads "With recipes!"). It also had to be made clear that the White House had no participation in First Garden.

While noting that the East Wing verified the recipes "which had been previously published," Schake repeated that the First Lady and White House staff had no involvement with the book.

In addition to being an author and illustrator, Gourley is a longtime publishing industry executive, and currently employed by a division of Highlights. She said she's "excited" about Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden book, and noted that a book by the First Lady, with photos rather than illustrations, is profoundly different from her own creation. (Above: Jefferson and chef Sam Kass appear together on one page of the book)

"I know Crown will do an extraordinary job and make it beautiful," Gourley said of Mrs. Obama's book, adding, with a chuckle, "I wish I could work on it."

Among other appearances for the book, Gourley will be in Washington, DC on Friday, May 6, for a reading and book signing at Politics & Prose bookstore, located at 5015 Connecticut Ave NW (more info is here). She'll also be appearing at the Smithsonian's annual Garden Fest the same weekend, with exact time and date to be announced. Each of her book appearances will include a children's gardening activity, Gourley said.

First Garden: The White House Garden And How it Grew includes a list of resources about White House history and gardening, and is $16.99 in the US market. It is available online domestically and internationally, and should be available in brick and mortar bookstores on Monday. Clarion Books is a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Gourley's website is here. Gourley cited this illustration as one of her favorite images in the book:

*Images from Robbin Gourley/Clarion Books. Photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/