Sophie & Zack’s Wonderful Adventures

It’s hard to say who enjoyed the attention more: Mindy, the white cockatoo at Sunken Gardens with the big personality, or the students from Bear Creek Elementary. Mindy ruffled the feathered crest on top of her head as the students crowded around, eager for a look at the exotic bird and hoping she’d say hello.

Back in February, before coronavirus social distancing guidelines, the students were there for the official launch of Sophie & Zack at Sunken Gardens, a colorful, interactive book published by the Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation. It’s part of a new innovative educational program in partnership with the Pinellas County School System.

Jennifer Tyson with students on tour at the gardens.

Initially, the project began as simply a book about the history of the gardens. But it quickly evolved into a teaching tool for children. “One of the people who donated money to support the project said she thought the kids should not only receive a book, but also get to visit the gardens,” said Robin Gonzales, the book’s author.

The Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation agreed. According to foundation president Robin Reed, over the next three years, an estimated 1,600 third graders at 19 Title-1 schools in St. Petersburg are expected to benefit from the program. Benefits include having a foundation volunteer visit the school to read the book to students, giving each student a free book to take home, and then having the students visit the gardens during a free class trip by school bus, all paid for with Forever Foundation funding.

“It’s exciting to be working with Pinellas County Schools and even more exciting to be giving the book to the children since many of them have never owned a book, “ said Robin. Amy Dodge, parent and family engagement coordinator for Pinellas County Title-1 Schools, takes it one step further. She points out that many local grade-school age students may have never even been to the beach, let alone Sunken Gardens. “This gives them something that might not normally get to experience and then they get to bring the book home and talk about their day with their parent or caregiver,” said Amy. “These are memories that will last for them.”

A former teacher and reading specialist, Robin Gonzales wrote the book in collaboration with art director and illustrator Peter Bajohr, a graduate of Ringling College of Art and Design, who lives in Tampa. The two had input from Sunken Gardens’ staff, including Jennifer Tyson, education coordinator at the gardens.

Jennifer had the interesting job of researching everything from how tall and how old the royal palm trees are that line the garden sidewalks (80 feet tall and 115 years old), to what types of frogs live there (pig frogs, green tree, bullfrogs, and Southern toads).

“It was fun gathering the information, and learning exactly what we do have and how many of each,” said Jennifer. She even counted how many Koi fish live in the ponds (30), the number of fountains (6), the number of waterfalls (2). The meticulous attention to detail is evident even in the book’s bright colorful artwork. “I wanted the colors in the book to match what was in the gardens – there are so many shades of green for example,” said Peter. He also designed unique ‘cut-outs’ to make the book more child-friendly and interactive. There’s a magnifying glass, flamingoes, lily pads, and a frog, as well as figures of Sophie and Zack. Peter’s daughter Sophie served as the model for the story.

The book captures some interesting factoids about St. Pete’s early history, starting with General John Williams traveling from Detroit, Michigan to Florida in 1875 and purchasing 2,500 acres of wild pine land on Tampa Bay. The book includes unique historic photographs, like the view of early St. Pete’s vast pine woods and an aerial view of the Pinellas Peninsula when Lake Maggiore was called Salt Lake and Bay Pines was called Veteran City.

St. Pete Councilwoman Gina Driscoll, Robin Gonzales, Robin Reed, and Mayor Rick Kriseman.

There’s also a full-page photo of the sign welcoming visitors to Turner’s Sunken Gardens and Papaya Farm. Before George Turner transformed the property into one of Florida’s favorite roadside attractions, Sunken Gardens was simply the family’s fruit stand where they grew papayas, mangoes, bananas, and guavas. To help volunteers tell the story, Robin Reed even purchased a show-and-tell tote bag full of realistic-looking plastic tropical fruit that volunteers can demonstrate while they read the story to the class.

“The children are the future stewards of Sunken Gardens and its history, “ said Robin. “We designed the program to promote understanding and appreciation of the gardens’ cultural heritage. The property is a classroom in itself with opportunities for teaching children everywhere you look.”