Seed by Seed

Posted: October 6, 2012 in Biography
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Seed by Seed, by Esmé Raji Codell, illustrations by Lynne Rae Perkins

In schools we tend to perpetuate myths, and one of the myths we often pass along without question is lore about John Chapman, or “Johnny Appleseed.” In many classrooms there is an apple unit in fall, with tales about this man who purportedly wore a cooking pot on his head and planted apple trees so we can now enjoy the fall fruit. Websites, worksheets, and children’s books depict the man with a tin hat, planting apple seeds throughout the wilderness.

Esmé Raji Codell (author) and Lynne Rae Perkins (illustrator) have a new picturebook biography about John Chapman–Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John “Appleseed” Chapman, recommended by the publisher for ages 4 and up. This new offering about “Johnny Appleseed” might explain Chapman’s place in history a bit more accurately than some other sources of information for children. It happens I researched Chapman not too long ago, and Codell does dispel some of the myths. Codell includes a bibliography to show where she gathered her information, and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (Random, 2002) is one of her sources. This is important, because Pollan explains that Chapman did not plant trees for eating apples, but for apples to be used for making cider. Hard cider. Yes, Johnny Appleseed brought alcohol to “wilderness.” Codell does mention cider (not hard cider), in her telling of how Chapman obtained seeds from mills in Pennsylvania, to be used for growing trees in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. She further related that Chapman sold seedlings to the pioneers, and Codell suggests he also gave the trees to those who could not afford to pay.

By most accounts, Chapman was an eccentric character. He was a vegetarian (but so am I, and I’m certainly not eccentric, am I?), and Codell also includes that he was a follower of the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. Among other oft-told vignettes or other characteristics of the man that Codell mentions is about the cooking pot he supposedly wore on his head in lieu of a hat. Writes Codell: “Some say he carried his tin cooking pot on his head like a hat.” Thus, neither confirming nor denying that he wore a pot as a hat.

Now let’s think about wearing a cooking pot on your head. In fact, go try it. (I’ll wait . . . .) How did it feel? What about in summer when it’s hot and humid, the sun is blazing on your metal headpiece, and there are all manner of insects flying around and crawling on your scalp? No?

Another reason Chapman may not have worn his pot on his head has to do with the pot itself. Marji Hazen, on the Johnny Appleseed page of the Ashland County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society website, states: “Pots of that period were handmade, usually of heavy copper, iron, or enameled iron. Such a burden would not long or comfortably serve the function of headgear. And above all, Johnny Appleseed was a man with a practical sense of function.”Another source that Codell consulted is Robert Price’s Johnny Appleseed: Man & Myth (Urbana University Press, 2001; first published 1954 by Peter Smith Publisher, Inc.). Price’s book is considered an authoritative source on the man, and Price asserts that first-hand reports do not confirm that Chapman wore the “mush-pot” hat.

Maybe Chapman wore a pot on his head, maybe he didn’t, but on the front cover of Seed by Seed illustrator Perkins gives us the handled-pot-hat image, thus saying he did. This image shows up at least twice again in the book, further reifying the idea that Chapman did wear a pot on his head.

Codell generalizes at the beginning of the book when she indicates tree trunks were once seen outside our windows (true, in certain parts of the country), but overall there is an attempt to provide a rational view of John Chapman. Esmé Raji Codell (Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year, and books for children) and Lynne Rae Perkins (author of Newbery Award winner Criss Cross as well as an illustrator), are giants in children’s literature. Seed by Seed is a quality book to be positioned among other sources of information about “Johnny Appleseed.” He is an American icon and his story is fascinating, regardless if we ever separate the fancy from the fact.

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