Jen Cullerton Johnson, illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler,
Other picture books about Wangari Maathai: Planting the Trees of Kenya (by Claire A. Nivola), Trees of Peace (by Jeanette Winter), Mama Miti (by Donna Jo Napoli).
Seeds of Change: Wangari’s Gift to the World
Lee & Low Books, 2010.
In the past two years, four children’s picture books have featured the story of Kenyan Nobel Prize Winner Wangari Maathai. Clearly, her life has inspired writers and illustrators with its powerful environmental message, applicable in developed as well as developing regions of the world.
Jen Cullerton Johnson's Seeds of Change focuses on Wangari’s childhood in rural Kenya fifty-odd years ago, then a much greener and more bountiful land. Readers learn about the early experiences that “Mama Miti,” as she came to be known, drew upon in her later work, when she trained local women to plant trees and thereby, slowly, to restore the countryside to its former health and vitality.
Wangari’s youthful thirst for education is compared to the land’s thirst for the water, held in the roots of trees. Few young girls in her community were educated beyond elementary school, but Wangari’s family supported her ambitions. After secondary school in Nairobi, she attended college and graduate school on scholarship in the U.S.
As one of the few women professors at the University of Nairobi, she saw the devastation of rural Kenya at the hands of international timber and development companies, and she began speaking to villagers about their responsibility and opportunity to help. “You must plant trees that will benefit the community to come… the roots of our future will bury themselves in the ground and a canopy of hope will reach the sky.” The Green Belt Movement she initiated led to her incarceration, but later she was elected to the Kenyan parliament. “Still, she did not stop planting trees.” In 2004, she became the first environmentalist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Sadler’s appealing illustrations reveal similarities between patterns in the verdant Kenyan landscape and those in the vivid prints worn by Kenyan women, complementing Johnson’s poetic language with visual inspiration. For children new to Wangari’s story, Seeds of Change is an excellent introduction. Those familiar with her work from earlier books will be reminded again that a few people, doing something even as simple as planting a tree, can bring hope and change to the world.