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Barbara Jean Hicks: Veggie-inspired stories for kids

May 2nd, 2018 | Category: Community

by Mary Vermillion

Author Barbara Jean Hicks can close her eyes and still see her father sitting with a child on his lap, reading aloud one of her books. A quiet man who spent much of his time tending his vegetable garden at the family home in Ferndale, Irby Hicks loved to make children laugh and to coax picky eaters into eating their veggies. Hicks is carrying on his legacy – he passed in 2011 – with her playful books Once Upon a Parsnip and Monsters Don’t Eat Broccoli – both dedicated to her dad – and a blog to inspire healthy eating.

Author Barbara Jean Hicks poses at Village Books in Fairhaven with her books Monsters Don’t Eat Broccoli and Once Upon a Parsnip and Penelope Parsnip, the start of her next project, Dance the Penelope. PHOTO BY MARY VERMILLION

Author Barbara Jean Hicks poses at Village Books in Fairhaven with her books Monsters Don’t Eat Broccoli and Once Upon a Parsnip and Penelope Parsnip, the start of her next project, Dance the Penelope. PHOTO BY MARY VERMILLION

Hicks, who may be best known locally for writing two books for the Walt Disney Company based on characters from the blockbuster movie “Frozen,” has written 13 novels, novellas and eight children’s books. The seeds of her future career as a storyteller were planted in her tiny childhood home on the outskirts of Ferndale.

“It was maybe 800 square feet, with two small bedrooms, and my parents and their seven children all somehow managed to live together there without (much!) damage to our psyches,” she said. “There were nooks and crannies in that house, including a tiny library, that I adored. My dad’s vegetable garden probably had at least twice the footprint of the house!” She remembers running through the rows of corn and playing with the squash her father grew.

Hicks left Whatcom County to attend college in California and had a career as a teacher, a copywriter and an author in Oregon and Seattle. She moved back to Ferndale to care for her aging parents, who were married just shy of 70 years when Irby Hicks died.Her mother Charlotte passed away in 2013.

Despite her father’s efforts, vegetables and healthy food are not among Hicks’ passions, so it wasn’t a personal interest that led her to write books and a blog about produce. Rather, like many good things, it was a lucky accident.

On a trip to London, her book editor stumbled across a mock-up of a children’s book titled Monsters Eat Skyscrapers (which never went to press after the 9/11 tragedy). The illustrations were captivating, and the editor asked if Hicks could bring the monsters back to life through a different story. “The illustrator showed the monsters eating all kinds of things,” she recalled. “It reminded me of my dad getting us to eat broccoli by telling us they were trees.”

Monsters Don’t Eat Broccoli, published in 2009, was a hit. So far, it’s her only non-Disney book to be printed in both hard cover and paperback.

A fortunate introduction to Bellingham artist Ben Mann in a local movie theater lobby prior to a showing of “Frozen” led to Once Upon a Parsnip. Mann was interested in illustrating a children’s book; the prolific Hicks had a handful of unpublished manuscripts she was thinking of self-publishing. “I gave him some of my manuscripts to look at,” she said. “He chose Once Upon a Parsnip.”

The story is co-written by her friend Kevin Wood, who inspired the idea with a writing exercise based on a grocery list of food items from fairy tales. Published in 2016, the richly illustrated book recounts a meeting of Mr. Wolf and Little Red at the Fairytale Market.

After publishing the books, she began writing a healthy eating and cooking blog on her website with games, coloring pages, book reviews, recipes and artwork. Although she’s no longer actively updating the blog, it is a wonderful resource for families and Hicks is not done telling veggie-inspired stories. Next up: Dance the Penelope, a “rhyming romp of vegetable puns” starring Penelope Parsnip that connects food and exercise.

Hicks also regularly visits schools to lead Young Author Assemblies and a Family Literacy Program. “I love working with kids because they are not afraid to be creative,” she said. “They don’t care what other people think and have crazy, fun ideas.”

Fun and laughter are central to her teaching. “What we learn when having fun, we don’t forget,” she said. “I believe in using fun, light-hearted activities with kids and adults, too, for that matter.”

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