Guest Post: Cherie Foster Colburn on Our Shadow Garden

By Cherie Foster Colburn

“What do you want from your dream?”

It was a good question. Technically, it was not the dream itself that was the subject of my husband’s question.

What came from that night’s dream was a story: Shadow Garden. It always had a name, but it hadn’t been a real place except to those I chose to visit it with me, reading what I’d scribbled after my time in the garden that night.

I’d been seriously ill when I had the dream. Reading or writing about nature was all I could do at the time, too sick to be in my own garden or continue my work as a professional landscape designer.

After writing and re-writing and re-writing, I entered Shadow Garden in a contest. It won first place. Publishers contacted me. With my experience designing learning gardens and curriculum for schools, I assumed the publishers would be thankful for my input on the illustrations and educational sidebars for the book. They were not.

So Shadow Garden was filed in a drawer labeled “writing.” But my health restored, the story was resurrected by a request from my teen daughter when I asked her what she wanted my legacy to be. “Publish the stinkin’ book, Mom!”

I was addressing Christmas cards when a discussion with my husband turned to my story. “Sarah wants me to send out Shadow Garden. I have such a clear view of the book though. My friend teaches art at the middle school. Her students could illustrate it.”

“You can’t do that. Too many liability issues.”

“You always think the worst.”

“I am usually right. Get those kids to illustrate your story,” he said, pointing to our Christmas cards from his favorite charity, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Proceeds of cards and other products directly benefit the children in treatment at the hospital. And actually, he is usually right–one of the few things I dislike about my husband.

I emailed the Children’s Art Project at M.D. Anderson with the idea, assuming they would be thrilled with the prospect. They were not.

“We don’t really do books. Well, we put out a book about every ten years, but we don’t have the children illustrate it in their art classes. We take their art and make a book out of it, not the other way around. But thank you for your support.”

Now what? What did I want from my dream?

Walking through that nighttime garden of my dream is still vivid, a relapse into childhood and to my grandmother’s garden, a magical place made even more so at night. No worries crowded my head. The plants and animals, the sounds and smells brought back memories I’d long forgotten. And I was not sick.

I wanted readers to witness my Shadow Garden just as I had that night, a place of wonder and hope and healing.

The next day I got an email from the director of the Children’s Art Project at M.D. Anderson. It had been ten years since their last book. “Send me your manuscript,” she said.

In a couple of weeks, I met their board. Then I was invited to see archives of the program’s last twenty years, art from children long gone, their work hidden away, fermenting, improving. Each piece of art was scanned and the individual pieces collaged to tell the story of a nighttime garden, my dream breathed to life.

Some of the children whose art I picked lost the battle against their illness. But many went on to a full life, often choosing professions and dedicating their lives to help other children fight cancer.

One day I got a call from another publisher, this one hired by M.D. Anderson to print Our Shadow Garden (Bright Sky, 2010). “What else have you written? I love your idea of adding educational sidebars to the story.”

That is what I wanted from my dream.

Cynsational Notes

A landscape designer and garden writer, Cherie has implemented learning gardens at elementary and middle schools throughout Texas. Whether speaking or writing, her joy is in discovery and leading students to that rebirth experience, the “ah-ha” moment when the child in each of us sees a piece of our world with new eyes.