Jamaica Kincaid, Artist Kara Walker

Jamaica Kincaid Releases First Children’s Book In Nearly 40 Years, ‘An Encyclopedia Of Gardening For Colored Children’

Jamaica Kincaid's new children's book, "An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children," explores plant life, colonization, and religion through bold illustrations.

Writer and Harvard University professor Jamaica Kincaid is passing along her gardening expertise to Black youth with her first children’s book in nearly 40 years, An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children.

The Antiguan-American novelist, essayist, and gardening writer teamed with renowned visual artist Kara Walker to illustrate her book, which serves as a stimulating exploration into the plant life that has shaped the colonized world. Kincaid, who’s been sitting on the idea for the book for some time, pulled Walker away from the caution she had about curating picture books which “lack delight and irreverence.”

“I wrote to Kara, but I was absolutely sure that this was an insulting idea to her, that she would say no. So when she responded yes, I probably didn’t read the whole email, I just immediately wrote back,” Kincaid told Harper’s Bazaar.

It was during the pandemic when Walker acquired an interest in gardening and turned to Kincaid’s 1991 effort, My Garden Book. Thanks to Kincaid’s 50-year history of writing novels, essays, and gardening books that reflect her bold intelligence, Kincaid was fresh on Walker’s mind when she reached out with her illustration request.

“Hilton [Als] mentioned that you were on Instagram, so I would see your flowers. I suddenly felt a connection that I really needed,” Walker said. “Being an artist and Black woman and feeling somewhat isolated … I needed a figure who was not just a friend, that I felt mentored by, in a way outside of the art.”

Through their mutual respect for each other’s work, Kincaid and Walker brought life to Kincaid’s children’s storybook, which is inspired by the Garden of Eden in the Holy Bible.

“I came to understand a garden there in this way,” Kincaid explained. “There are many layered things about it, but the garden in particular, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge—I’ve interpreted the Tree of Life as agriculture, and the Tree of Knowledge as horticulture.”

When it came to titling the children’s book, Kincaid was prompted by her publisher to remove the term that’s looked at as “the N-word.” But telling that to a writer who’s regarded for being a literary “bad a**” meant the requested change wasn’t up for discussion.

“Is them not the word ‘colored’? The word ‘colored’ applies to all,” Kincaid said. “If you’re going to use it to designate one group of people, it’s all people. White is a color—it’s not the absence of color and the rest of us are a color. White is a color, too. You could say ‘for all children,’ but I love the word ‘colored.’ I didn’t want ‘children of color.’ No, no.”

Kincaid is celebrated for literary classics like 1996’s The Autobiography of My Mother, Lucy (1990) and A Small Place (1988). Her new release offers readers an ABC of the plants that define our world and unveils the often brutal history behind them. Walker applies her illustrative expertise to help bring Kincaid’s words to life through provocative, enthralling, multi-layered watercolors.

An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children is available for sale now.

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