In honor of Earth Day and Arbor Day (later on this week here in the U.S.), we have four recommendations for books about Wangari Maathai, the environmentalist and activist who curbed Kenyan deforestation by planting trees. For those of you unfamiliar with Maathai, here is a short summary of her life and work:
Born April 1, 1940, Wangari Maathai grew up in the central highlands of Kenya. Taught from a young age to respect trees and the world around her, she eventually moved to the U.S. to study biology in college. When she returned to Kenya as a college professor (a particularly noteworthy accomplishment for a woman at the time), Maathai found the government was allowing big foreign companies to deforest her homeland, leading to problems like soil erosion and lack of food. Maathai took action; gathering other mothers, they began planting trees to ensure the world they passed on to their children and future generations would be a good one. In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement--now a worldwide movement--promoting the planting of trees, recycling, and alternative energy sources.
In 2004, at the age of 64, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Until her death from ovarian cancer in 2011, Maathai was active in planting trees, sharing about the importance of preserving our environment, and promoting women's and children's rights, both in her native Kenya and abroad. These books are all great introductions to Maathai's life and work. They can be read individually, but I would recommend they be read together--perhaps over the course of a week or weekend, or sprinkled throughout a day--as they compliment each other and all tell Maathai's story from a unique vantage point. The last two books have lighter text--and so miss out on some of the important and interesting details of Maathai's life--but may be easier for younger readers (4 and younger) with shorter attention spans. All of the books include notes with additional information about Maathai's life and times.
Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace
written by Jen Cullerton Johnson, illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler
This book tells the story of Maathai's life from girlhood to womanhood, focusing on the respect for the earth Maathai was taught as a young girl and how this respect led to her literally world-changing actions. Seeds of Change also highlights the fact that planting trees was a struggle as the rich and powerful tried to stop Maathai and the other mothers, even going so far as to jail her unjustly. However, they do not succeed, and Kenya was saved from deforestation by the seeds planted by one smart, brave, and courageous woman. Sadler uses bold lines and bright colors that will help keep readers focused and engaged.
Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai
written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
This story also begins with Maathai's childhood and focuses on the damage landscape she found when she returned to Kenya after college. Nivola does an excellent job of explaining to readers the multitude of problems that result from deforestation. This book also makes it clear that Maathai educated many people in Kenya about the importance of trees and that planting trees was hard--but worthwhile--work. Nivola's illustrations exemplify a respect for the Kenyan people and landscape. Her attention to detail made me want to more closely examine the illustrations to fully appreciate the art.
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya
written by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
This version of Maathai's tale focuses on the people who come to Maathai for help and her advice to them. Each person's dilemma has a natural solution and Maathai admonishes them to plant the seeds that will solve their problems. The result of all the planting is cleaner water, more wildlife, people who are no longer hungry, and a beautiful Kenyan landscape restored. Nelson's bright, bold collages illustrate this poetic story.
Wangari's Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa
written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Winter begins her story focusing on the beauty of Maathai's childhood landscape. Though a short time passed between Maathai going to school in America and returning to Kenya, great damage had been wrought on the environment. Maathai begins planting trees and recruits other women to her cause. Though some men laughed at the untrained women, tried to stop them, and continued cutting down trees, Maathai and the other environmentalists kept up their hard work and are eventually rewarded with a green Kenya once more. Winter uses bright colors and basic shapes in her illustrations.