Having your first book come out on your birthday is quite the coincidence (and a pretty neat birthday gift!) for most people. But for Maryah Greene, the 28-year-old New York-based plant stylist and acclaimed “plant doctor,” when it comes to her debut children’s book, Good Things, coincidence has nothing to do with it. A three-year journey precipitated by her work as an educator, and later with plants, led to this small but mighty story that, in learning about Greene’s steps to this moment, could only be written by her.
With just over a week before the book’s release, the author and I sat down for lunch and cocktails, where she reflected on the almost three-year journey it took to write this book. She vividly remembers when she was first approached by her publisher, Penguin Random House. Impressed by a stellar media run which included coverage of her plant styling work in Vogue, The New York Times, and appearances on Good Morning America, the publishing house broached the idea of collaborating on a plant styling coffee book. “I was in grad school mastering in literacy and working on my senior thesis, which just so happened to be a children’s book about plants and little Black boys dealing with loss,” Greene shares with Unbothered. She didn’t know what they would think of it, but she did know that if she were going to put her name on a book, she wanted it to be more than just glossy plant photos and how-tos. With the intuitive sense of needing more out of a project like this propelling her forward, she sent the publisher her children’s book, unsure of what the response would be, or if there would be one at all. To her surprise, they loved the story, but they originally had a more commercial, lighthearted story in mind.
But it was the summer of June 2020 and the world was buzzing. The Black Lives Matter movement was seeing an unprecedented global momentum built off the horrific and seemingly endless reel of Black death paraded on our screens. It was precisely because of this that Greene made a case for this particular story. At a time where the most commercial story was Black death, there wasn’t a more urgent need for a story about supporting little Black boys navigating grief. “It was one of those moments where if I didn’t say what I wanted to say, I would regret it for the rest of my life,” she recounts. And it was a gamble that paid off. Penguin acknowledged the weight of the moment and their duty as publishers to tell compelling, important stories and the incredible, three-year process began.
Books like Good Things are rare in that they nail the balancing act of offering a universal message while maintaining an obvious specificity. Readers are brought into Malcolm’s New York world and we’re shown a beautiful glimpse of vibrant Black life that is instantly recognizable. From Pops’ gold chain, to the affectionate display of the nuanced Black artform of the compliment (“I’m tryna get like you!”) to Nana living in the home with Malcolm and his dad, this is a life that we know. We see Malcolm playing chess and swimming, stereotypes intentionally flipped on their head by Greene in her demanding more — and better — of her reader. It is comforting in its truth.
And of course, we can’t forget about the plants. The Great Plant Boom of 2020 saw thousands of people test their greenthumbs as the world went under quarantine. Faced with being at home for an indefinite amount of time, people sought the comforting aesthetic of our stoic, green friends to keep us company and perhaps help distract us from the world seemingly coming to an end. Indeed, this book was borne out of both Greene’s time as an educator and her work as a plant doctor and stylist., “I noticed that all my clients had one thing in common: they were either leaning on their plants as a space of relief or they were calling me because they were out of options and they couldn’t figure out how to keep their plants alive anymore,” she shares.
For Greene, Malcolm was created to represent that point in people’s lives where you’re out of options, something traumatic has happened, but you still need to persevere and keep going. And that story is personal for Greene. “We’ve all lost someone. And that someone for me is my grandma,” she continues. “After she passed away in 2017, I was frustrated for a very long time because I wanted her to see my success. And I realized I wasn’t actually coping with this loss. I was just throwing myself into work.” The book’s dedication reads, “For Grandma Sandy. I did it!” and you get the sense that those three words mean many things. They of course note the magnificent achievement of publishing a book but they also mean that Greene found a way to live, to thrive, to keep going.
This isn’t a book about death. This is a book about life and how to care for the living after loss. The details of death and Black folks have been played out in grim, excruciating detail for too long. Good Things challenges us to look forward.
Grief is such a sticky, awkward thing to talk about. It slips through our fingers whenever we try to hold onto it long enough to look at it. It confounds the human instinct we have to dissect it, pry it open, and put it under a microscope to get a glimpse. It’s the thing that will eventually come for all of us. It constantly reminds us that it isn’t meant to be consumed — grief does the consuming. Difficult for adults to navigate and verbalize, it can feel too Herculean a task to even attempt with children. And there’s a reason for this, isn’t there? Children are mirrors; they reflect the hard truths about ourselves that somewhere along the way, we learned to hide. Who taught you to do that? To utter the lie “I’m fine” when in reality your insides had been hollowed? When did you first learn to betray your heart like that?
Since I’ve joined the ranks of parenthood, I know these are the things I want to protect my son from. I don’t want him to feel like he needs to diminish any parts of himself. There are certain childhood canon events that will be pivotal to his journey. Conversations will be had that will shape his worldview. There will be victories that embolden him with lifelong confidence and, of course, there will be tragedies that will knock him off his square. And it’s my job, along with his dad, to act as his guide through all of it. To lift him towards the sun during the triumphs and to pull him in close during the heartbreaks. The second phase of parenting is realizing that you’re on the same journey as your child. You’re growing up right alongside them. And while they have the whole world to learn, you have entire galaxies to unlearn and repair as you learn with them.
When Pops passes away, Malcolm is left to not only deal with his confusing, overwhelming grief, but to also care for his dad’s beloved plants, including his prized star, “Big Mon,” a beautiful, giant monstera. As Malcolm drowns in his feelings, he pours (literally) into the plants, watering them in the desperate hope that they won’t leave him, too., and that they can now be reservoirs for all his love for Pops with seemingly nowhere to go now that he’s gone. For us as the reader, why or how Pops passed is of no real importance. This isn’t a book about death. This is a book about life and how to care for the living after loss. The details of death and Black folks have been played out in grim, excruciating detail for too long. Good Things challenges us to look forward. How do we care for the most vulnerable among us - our children - when faced with unimaginable pain? How do we ensure that they process their feelings in healthy, sustainable ways so that they can continue to thrive and flourish?
Greene hopes that this book will ultimately become a conversation starter for parents and educators. “Most adults mean well! It’s okay if you’re feeling uncomfortable about having this conversation,” she says. “You’re not expected to have the tools or the language to talk about it right away, but this book will help your children ask the right questions so that you can then start figuring out the answers together.”
As we wrap up our interview, I ask her how she’s feeling, a question she admits she hasn't really taken the time to think about yet. Up until now, she says, whether it was her work with clients or in partnership with a company, her entire career has been crafted so that she didn’t need to be the star of the show. This book is the first thing that’s hers. And as for what’s next, Greene is leaving that to the universe to design for her: “If you had asked me three years ago to describe a plant styling business, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I know that I want to be in more spaces with children. Maybe that looks like leading wellness workshops or leading the literacy program at a school. I just know that I want to tell more stories with and for children.”
How to navigate living after loss is a hurdle all of us face, and once it comes, you’re made to reckon with it for the remainder of your life. Malcolm learned that neglecting his own care to focus on Pops’ plants wasn’t the right way to cope. He learned that Big Mon and the other plants flourishing depended on him taking care of himself first. So I can’t help but to rejoice at how lucky my son is that he will get to experience and enjoy this book as a familiar and comforting mirror guide to his own life. And how lucky we are as his parents to add it to our toolkits for the inevitable questions about loss that will one day come. How lucky we all are to have a children’s book that focuses on the triumph, practice, and care of living. What a good thing that is.
Good Things Hardcover Edition will be released everywhere on August 1, 2023.