Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai
by Claire A. Nivola
(Frances Foster Books; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
Winner of the 2009 Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards in the “Books for Younger Children” category, Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai tells the story of Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai’s campaign to save the landscape of Kenya and, through the foundation of her Green Belt Movement, to encourage people to help themselves, through its mission “to mobilize community consciousness for self-determination, equity, improved livelihoods and security, and environmental conservation.”*.
Planting the Trees of Kenya immediately engages its young audience by introducing us to Wangari as a child, growing up in a fertile, prosperous land where farming rhythms are attuned to their environment. It progresses through her time as a student in the U.S., to the changes she discovered in the landscape of Kenya when she returned home. Young readers can immediately take in the disastrous implications of Wangari standing in the midst of agricultural workers, gazing at a tree stump, which was all that remained of her beloved, sacred fig tree. Indeed, the whole landscape was bereft of trees and the environmental implications of this are only too apparent in the panorama of barren soil and choking air. However, Wangari did not just sit down and lament. She set about urging those around her to plant trees, beginning with the women:
“Many of the women could not read or write. They were mothers and farmers, and no one took them seriously. But they did not need schooling to plant trees. They did not have to wait for the government to help them. They could begin to change their own lives.”
As the results of their labor became apparent, the men stopped laughing and joined in. Wangari took her campaign into schools, prisons and even the army – and so the story ends with the staggering statistic that thirty million trees have been planted in Kenya in the last thirty years.
Nivola recounts Wangari’s story simply and includes all that is necessary to inspire young readers to be young activists for the future of their planet. Her panoramic landscapes illustrate the story eloquently, whether in the lush greens of a fertile land or the arid orange of bare, deforested soil – and the people, whose bright clothing is in perfect counterpoint to the background, provide endless extra details for eager young eyes.
An Author’s Note brings Wangari’s story up to the present, which helps older readers to make the leap from it being an inspiring story to it being a true inspiring story. Planting the Trees of Kenya is a beautiful book which will both prompt children to go out and plant trees themselves, and sow the seed of conviction that with determination, any individual can make a difference.
*Quoted from the Green Belt Movement website.