Sowing the seeds of reading

Bookworm 1
As the chill winds of winter settle in, the sounds of saws and hammers busily building Sandy Livermore's decade-long dream — a special place where the wonders of nature and children's literature intertwine — are bringing warmth to her heart.

"Every single bit of this is turning out better than I could have ever hoped for," said Livermore, a former landscape designer and founder of Bookworm Gardens, which is being constructed on a two-acre site on the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan campus.

The gardens mix many paths, shrubs, trees and environmentally friendly structures with a series of about 10 reading-themed areas based on 74 different children's books. Included are titles such as "Goodnight Moon," "The Magic School Bus," and the currently popular, "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs."

The first phase of the gardens, whose idea was hatched by Livermore in 1999, is to open next spring, though many of the small buildings and reading areas on the paths are in place and the project is drawing lots of attention as construction continues.

"Everyone who comes here from the community who hasn't been familiar with this project has been so amazed and so astounded," said Debra Denzer, executive director.

"They're bringing their little children with them (and) their children are equally as excited," Denzer said. "It's amazing. They want to stay and play. Even the way it is now, they think this is just an amazing place for them."

Among the places to visit will be a real school bus that will be equipped with wings for kids who enjoy the popular book and video series "The Magic School Bus," a log cabin designed around Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House in the Big Woods," and a "Charlotte's Web" Garden Farm, where kids can experience planting sweet corn and even cooking their own pizza sauce. The goal is to get kids into reading and nature, and away from electronic gizmos such as cell phones and video games.

"That's our tagline, 'Bringing Books to Life One Garden at a Time,'" Denzer said. "This is really what we're about and what we're trying to do: To create an understanding of literacy, and literacy encompasses many things, not just reading."

The centerpiece is the Hansel & Gretel Administration Building, where crews are busiest these days, constructing the A-frame cottage style structure with a curvy roofline to resemble the famous house of the classic children's tale. It's expected to be finished in February and include a classroom, offices, gift shop, restrooms and a small kitchen.

There's also a lot of green architecture being built into Bookworm Gardens, including a pondless waterfall underground water restoration system that captures runoff and cascades the water down a flagstone wall into a catch basin, where it gets recirculated. The Hansel & Gretel building has a geothermal heating and cooling system.

"Being a garden, we need to be in the forefront of doing it right ourselves and setting an example," Denzer said.

Through a capital campaign, Bookworm Gardens has raised about $1.87 million in the community for the project, and officials hope to attract another $1 million in donations to finish the two phases. The total goal of the campaign is $2.8 million. Right now, they're on a build-as-they-can-afford-it plan, which should get the first phase done next summer.

"As they (the public) see the park and the progress that we're making, I think we'll reach our goal sooner than later," said Sher Quasius, Bookworm Gardens fine arts coordinator, who often also lends a hand with a power drill.

Fundraising information and other facts and news about Bookworm Gardens is available at the group's Web site, www.bookwormgardens.org.

Quasius Construction is the lead contractor, and several area plumbing and heating firms such as Specht Electric and D&M Plumbing are involved in construction. The Carpenters Local 731 will be building a Japanese tea house and many volunteer groups such as Americorps, Home Depot and area schools are also participating. LJM Architects in Sheboygan designed the buildings. The site was leased from Sheboygan County.

"For me, it's been a great project," said Ralph Schmitt, project manager for Quasius. "After being in construction for almost 40 years, to be able to do a project like this for the Sheboygan area is really a plus. It's just really a great feeling."

The passion to create Bookworm Gardens began for Livermore 10 years ago, when she was attending a perennial plant convention in East Lansing, Mich. While on the Michigan State University campus for a photography class, she spent a half-day at the school's new children's garden, watching kids interact with the plants.

That afternoon, a group of teenagers came to the garden and began reading aloud to the children, and the idea light switched on for Livermore.

"This would be so cool to take the whole idea of a children's garden, bring it to Sheboygan and completely base it on literature," she said. "It was such a profound moment to watch kids reading to other kids in a garden setting."

Fundraising has been steady over the years, and even in today's struggling economy, Livermore said Bookworm Gardens continues to create a passion and buzz in the community.

Groundbreaking was on June 24, and the construction is keeping the enthusiasm alive for when the project opens.

"This is a project about joy and about hope and even though we may be in sad economic times, it's really fun to have something that's so joyful for families to look forward to," Livermore said.

Petrie, Bob. “Sowing the seeds of reading.” The Sheboygan Press. November 16, 2009, page A1.