Seeds of hope from the pens of children

A year and a half ago Susan Romaine had an idea.

As a co-founder of PORCH (People Offering Relief for Chapel Hill-Carrboro Homes), Romaine had tried spreading the word through standard means like social media and traditional media outlets. Her goal was to get other communities to adopt the PORCH model: Once a month, on a designated day, neighborhood residents place a food donation on their front porch. Then a neighborhood coordinator makes the rounds to pick up the donations, which are driven to a central location to be sorted, packed and delivered to local food pantries. The neighborhood-based hunger relief organization has spread its model to other parts of Orange County and regionally, but Romaine wanted to amplify the message.

And then it came to her: a children’s book – not only that, but one written by local children.

“This book is really giving an opportunity for kids to have a wider audience for their wisdom,” Romaine says.

Under the guidance of writer Susie Wilde (who writes a children’s book review column for The N&O) and artist Peg Gignoux, 30 Orange County kids collaboratively wrote and illustrated “Planting Hope.” Rather than a book explicitly about PORCH, it’s a tale of a girl with a golden seed who works to unify a divided garden. An afterword explains PORCH and its mission. The book will be on sale at Weaver Street Market, and copies will be donated to libraries and schools. Any additional money raised by the “Planting Hope” Kickstarter campaign, which ends Nov. 11, will fund additional free copies.

This is the time for “Planting Hope,” Romaine says. The 2016 election has focused so much on our differences, she says, that it feels right to put out a book about the things we have in common.

“It’s something we all need right now,” she says, explaining that the book is a reminder from kids to look past our differences. In a garden, Romaine points out, every plant needs the same things to thrive. Ethnicity, background and religion are irrelevant in basic human needs, too.

Wilde and Gignoux met with children from an English as second language class at Smith Middle School and an after-school program at Rogers Road Community Center, and each brought a different process.

Wilde’s passion is children’s books written for kids by kids. To create the story, she relied on a technique she has developed over two-plus decades of collaborative writing. Wilde and the kids develop a list of characters, then narrow it down to just one. Then they ask questions about that character and develop the story from there. Having mixed ages worked well for “Raising Hope,” too: the younger children, some as young as kindergarten age, had a good sense of musicality, while the more mature middle school students could help develop the characters. Over the course of about 12 weeks (and at least 30 drafts) the story progressed until it felt done.

Where Wilde worked with the entire group at once, Gignoux worked with pairs to bring the story to visual life.

“We worked with fabric,” she says. “We dyed all the cloth in one session. We came back, we printed on the cloth.” To many kids, working with cloth was a novel experience, and all age groups contributed. The younger students, for instance, were less distracted by homework and were good at separating small pieces of fabric.

“It’s collaboration and it’s cumulative,” she says.

In this project, Gignoux describes herself as the conductor of an orchestra. She asked the children questions: “What colors do we need?” And she encouraged them to look at picture books to see how other artists approached garden stories, and then to apply that inspiration to their own project.

“The kids can have a hand in their own illustration, in their own creative process,” Gignoux says.

The original illustrations will all return to the Rogers Road Community Center. So many writers work in isolation, she says, and the writer/illustrator can be almost invisible. In this case, though, the book “Planting Hope” was the collaborative creation of an entire community of children. It may not tell the story of PORCH, but it feels right to Romaine.

“If we listen to kids, they have a lot of lessons to teach us,” she says.

To help

To donate to the Kickstarter campaign so more books may be donated to libraries and schools go to

An exhibition of illustrations in “Planting Hope” will be on view Dec. 7-Feb. 5, Frank Gallery, 109 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. A reception is at 6 p.m. Dec. 9 and a salon with the writers and illustrators is at 2 p.m. Dec 11.