What inspired you to write Jayden’s Impossible Garden?
The idea first came to me one warm spring evening. As I strolled through the neighborhood with my family, I kept hearing a squishy popping sound. I wondered what it was and tried to find out. No one else seemed to hear it. After many more walks, and research, I learned that I’d been hearing worms!
What if I wrote a story about that? After watching my students on the playground and other kids in the neighborhood, I wanted to capture their imaginative play, and the way they invent whole worlds with very little. Along with memories of my own childhood, playing outside with my siblings, Jayden’s character emerged—though he wasn’t yet named Jayden. The worms didn’t survive the many drafts, but the idea of a kid who noticed those kinds of details in nature, did.
Jayden lives in an urban setting which makes it difficult for him to connect with nature, but you provide ways to make that happen for children like planting runner beans in a milk jug. Where did these great ideas come from?
On my walks, I notice all kinds of planters, bird feeders, and bird houses. The hand made ones usually catch my attention first. I love seeing how others recycle materials. There are lots of great ideas online as well. It’s amazing how many different ways people can use milk jugs!
Growing up, we decorated old cans and bottles and boxes all the time. We used what we had. It’s essential to recycle, but I think it’s important to show children the joy and satisfaction in using your hands to make things.
Jayden forms a friendship with an elder neighbor who also enjoys being out in nature. Tell us why that relationship is important in the story?
Their relationship is special because it’s formed by shared interests. Jayden and Mr. Curtis become allies, each helping the other enjoy the outdoors even more. Their relationship is mutually beneficial. At times, Jayden helps Mr. Curtis. Other times, Mr. Curtis helps Jayden. Jayden is interested in hearing Mr. Curtis’s memories and Mr. Curtis enjoys creating new stories with Jayden. Their intergenerational relationship highlights the respect for elders in African American culture.
The illustrations by Ken Daley are vibrant and colorful. Tell us about your illustrations and working with Ken.
Though I had expressed a few art preferences before production began, typically, authors are not in direct communication with the illustrator. The creative director thought Ken’s style would suit the story best and relayed info and questions through the editor to me and vise versa.
I was thrilled when I first saw Ken’s sketches. They were in black and white, and so energetic and expressive. He conveyed so much so swiftly. But that was just the beginning. I was blown away when Ken added color. His palette is so bright and expansive that Jayden and Mr. Curtis nearly jump off the page!
I loved Ken’s vision of Jayden, Mr. Curtis, Mama, and the neighbors. They were all clearly depicted as individuals that you might actually meet down the street in your neighborhood. Yet his style is also playful. I loved his animals too: the bird at the window, the curious rabbit.
That’s one of the reasons why I love picture books. You get to work with a wonderfully creative team of people, each adding something to produce a beautiful book that young readers can hold in their hands. Ken’s illustrations truly bring Jayden to life.
What do you hope children learn or take away from Jayden’s Impossible Garden?
I hope children see themselves as heroes of their own stories, no matter how fantastical the vision or how humble the actual setting. I hope children gain an appreciation for elders in their life and the role they can have in building relationships. I hope Jayden sparks more creative play and exploration of nature nearby. I hope children are inspired to cultivate community with their human AND nature neighbors.
What are you working on next?
Jayden may have another adventure or two in the works! I’m also working on another picture book biography, this time in collaboration with a poet. And, I’m always researching and writing other topics that bounce into my brain!
Mélina Mangal has authored short stories and biographies for youth, including The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just, winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award. Her latest book is Jayden’s Impossible Garden. Mélina also works as a school library media teacher in Minnesota and enjoys spending time outdoors with her family.
If you’d like to learn more about Mélina Mangal please visit her social media links below!