“If you’re gonna learn to garden, you need to know how to say hello to a worm.”

Artist Kari Percival and the importance of connecting children to nature

By Colette Lauture

When author, illustrator, and mother of two Kari Percival was little, she tried to grow orange seeds in her backyard.

Saving the seeds from an orange she ate, she brought them outside, and buried them in the ground. When nothing came up, she asked her parents about the delay. She felt embarrassed to learn that orange seeds don’t grow in this New England climate. 

With parents who grew up in Maine, Percival always engaged in gardening activities with her family. She remembers planting peas with her grandfather, specifically.

“I felt like I was a sorcerer’s apprentice standing next to a magician and learning the art of life,” she said. “How we’re alive is that we get food from sunshine, [and] through these other beings that we can learn to grow.”

Stories like this are what contributed to the publishing of her February 2022 award-winning book, “How to Say Hello to a Worm: A First Guide to the Outside.” Its digital woodcut illustrations and child characters provide young readers a how-to-guide on the beginnings of learning to garden.

“How to Say Hello to a Worm” has seen much success, winning awards like the 2023 Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy (CLEL) Bell Picture Book Award. It also made the 2023 Notable Children’s Books list for the Association for Library Service to Children. The book was even chosen to be on singer and philanthropist Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library Blue Ribbon Selections. The organization mails free books to children around the world from birth to age five.

Illustration from “How to Say Hello to a Worm: A First Guide to the Outside.” Photo by Kari Percival
Illustration from “How to Say Hello to a Worm: A First Guide to the Outside.” Photo by Kari Percival

Percival combined her lifelong love of illustrations with an affinity towards nature, which evidently manifested itself in “How to Say Hello to a Worm.” On the biography page of her website, she explains that in her youth, she believed that the best pages of any coloring book were the blank endpages.

“There, I could draw any stories I dreamed up,” she wrote.

During this time, Percival often conjured up “stock images,” as she called them, in her head. One she remembers vividly is of a whale with its spout and tail emerging from the water, with an island on the side. 

Her love of the outdoors became enhanced by her sixth grade science teacher, Janet Altobello. Her classes consisted of fun games combined with learning about the forces of ecology, the processes behind the food chain, and how food pyramids worked. Moving into her high school years and beyond, Percival’s strong art portfolio led her to study art at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, where she discovered a liking for woodcut printmaking. During the summer, she taught at a nature day camp, which she says helped point her in the direction of the career path of ecology and the environment. 

Percival then started out studying natural resources at UMass Amherst. There, she made art about ecology and the interactions between living things. People were frequently confused by her art, wondering what she was trying to say.

“I realized that my education had been unusual, that it wasn’t common knowledge [to know] how interdependent all life is…that palpable understanding wasn’t in people’s consciousness,” she said. 

Image from Kari Percival’s website. Photo from karipercival.com

After her schooling, Percival started her own puppet theater. Although she performed shows mostly on ecology, she was also asked to teach art workshops. Such a proposal made her realize that if she were to teach something, it had to be vital. Hoping to do for others what Janet Altobello had done for her, she became a middle school science teacher. 

While art and nature had been constants in her life, Percival believes that books were a nice, convenient way to combine the two mediums.

Diving into her endeavors as an author, the inspiration for “How to Say Hello to a Worm” came from a gardening club she started. 

Early Birds Garden Club is “a meet up for toddlers and parents that wanted to learn how to grow food at the local community garden,” according to an interview from KidLit connection with Percival. As leader of the group, she was able to learn what questions toddlers had about nature and learning to garden.

At the time of the club’s fruition, railroad tracks adorned with wildflowers inhabited the spot along the old railroad tracks where the garden is now. Percival used to bring her then two-year-old there as a place to become acquainted with nature. Later on, a community garden was installed and Percival was offered a plot. As a way of motivating herself, she came up with the idea of inviting other members of her community, specifically families, to tend to the garden. 

Putting up posters in different languages around her neighborhood and creating a Facebook page, the club was born. It eventually gained funding from the Malden Cultural Council.

Early Birds Garden Club entrance. Photo by Kari Percival
A group of children from the Early Birds Garden Club tending to the garden. Photo by Kari Percival

Being that “How to Say Hello to a Worm” has its roots in Early Birds Garden Club, foundational questions that the toddlers would ask their parents about gardening made their way into the book.

Whether it was “How do you plant this kind of seed versus this kind of seed?” or “Where do you put the water?” being asked, the common thread was finding a place to start the gardening processes.

A central theme that “How to Say Hello to a Worm” emphasizes is the relationship between children and nature. Percival believes that toddlers are at the perfect age to begin that exploration.

“At that level…I feel like there’s just a developmental window where they’re just really ready to learn that information, and really interested in every aspect of it their own way,” she said. 

She also affirms that since our lives are so deeply connected with nature and natural processes, it’s only right that children acknowledge the sun shining, plants collecting the sun’s energy, and their expelling of oxygen.

Percival planting seeds with the Early Birds Garden Club. Photo from karipercival.com

“Those are the most vital, basic life processes that we would not exist without, and, so that’s really fascinating and wonderful and amazing and vital to know for everyone.”

Toddlers are also at that developmental stage where they are weaning, Percival explained. They are starting to first get their whole relationship with their parents, and are in the transition of feeding themselves, which can be very empowering.

“Taking it a step further, they can learn to grow food..it’s really exciting for them.”

Describing toddlers as “laser focused,” she added that that age is a perfect time to hone their fine motor skills, which can be applied and enhanced by functions like picking up seeds and planting them.

Children tending to the EBGC community garden. Photo by Kari Percival

Advocating for the close relationship of children with nature, Percival’s book also aims to erase the assumption for children that food is only store bought, eaten, and moved on from.

Percival believes that toddlers can understand much more than the supermarket-to-table pipeline. She also likes using the term “edible education,” which refers to the connection of students to food and nature through hands-on activities. She is confident that such a concept can teach toddlers, and even adults, that gardening is not as daunting as it’s made out to be.

“It just connects us to our ancestors and to other earth systems that we’re using every minute.”

Focusing the connections between children and nature on her own life, Percival thinks that spending time with her young children in the environment has become a huge source of their joy together. Whenever the kids get extremely wound up, she said, bringing them out into nature is a good emotional outlet.

She suggests taking kids to a pond, letting them run around or throw rocks in the water, all a way to “come back to themselves on their own without needing intervention.”

Kari Percival at the Gallery UMA exhibit “Wide Eyed World” featuring Percival’s work and two other artists. Photo by Greg Cook

Percival is planning on releasing a new book in 2025, called Safe Crossing, an informational picture book concerning spring amphibian migration. See Percival’s personal website for more information. The illustrations from “How to Say Hello to a Worm” are also on display at Urban Media Arts until February 28. Signed copies of the book are available at the Gallery@57 Pleasant Street, Malden as well.

About Colette Lauture 2 Articles
Colette Lauture, is a sophomore journalism major at Emerson College. She is a Citizen Journalism/Community Reporter Intern at UMA. She is excited to put out news content on all things Malden!

1 Comment

  1. Thank you! My garden bed used to be next to the Early Birds! What fun to see the miniature tools and toys that create gardeners and eventually stewards of our planet. Bring on the dirt (soil)! BTW: it is good for the immune system! 🙂

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