Four Picture Books About Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was a Kenyan environmentalist and political activist. Her accomplishments form an impressive list:

  • First Eastern African woman to earn a PhD (1971)
  • Founder of the Green Belt Movement (1977)
  • Member of Parliament in Kenya (2002)
  • First African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (2004)

The story of Wangari Maathai’s life yields lessons in the importance of education, women’s rights, hard work, perseverance, and caring for the environment. Below you’ll find reviews of four picture books about her life and the huge impact she had in Kenya and around the world, starting with the simple phrase, “Plant a tree.”

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 2008)

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The fairly brief text of this picture book clearly tells the story of Wangari, who up in Kenya, then went to school in America. When she returned six years later she wondered what had happened to all the trees, so she started a nursery and convinced the village women to plant trees. Soon tree planting spread throughout Kenya. When Wangari tried to stop people from cutting down trees she was put in jail, but her work could not be stopped. Eventually the whole world heard of Wangari’s trees. The message of Wangari’s Trees of Peace is about the environment, but more about perseverance and the way good deeds have a big impact. Like all of Jeanette Winter’s picture books, this one features simple colourful illustrations with borders on different coloured backgrounds. The author’s note is a short bio of Wangari Maathai. Recommended for ages 5-8.

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola (Frances Foster Books, 2008)

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As you can see from the covers, this book has a completely different style of illustration from Wangari’s Trees of Peace; the pictures are more muted and detailed. The text is also more detailed. For example, it mentions that the school Wangari attended in America was a college run by Benedictine nuns, where she studied biology. It also describes in more detail the changes that took place while she was away: people buying food instead of growing it, looking sickly, and walking for hours to find fire wood. It explains how Wangari taught the women not to blame others but to make changes themselves. It names specific plants and includes the fact that she gave seedlings to school children, inmates, and soldiers. The book ends by stating that in 30 years 30 million trees have been planted and the planting hasn’t stopped. However, the text doesn’t mention Wangari being hurt or imprisoned. The clear message of this picture book is our need to care for the earth and also to work hard and make a difference ourselves. A two-page “Author’s Note” covers Wangari’s life, Kenya gaining independence while she was away at school, the Green Belt Movement, and clashes with the government. Recommended for ages 6-9.

Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace by Jen Cullerton Johnson, illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler (Lee & Low Books, 2010)

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The text of this book is quite long and covers more of Wangari’s childhood than the other books. For instance, it mentions her tribe (Kikuyu), and describes her brother convincing her parents to send her to school when most girls were uneducated. After elementary school she moved to Nairobi, and then to Kansas and Pennsylvania. The book also describes her university studies. Seeds of Change is similar to Planting the Trees of Kenya in describing the changes in Kenya and the Green Belt Movement, but it also includes her imprisonment and world travels to spread her message. The story ends with Wangari winning the Nobel Peace Prize. This book has more emphasis on women’s rights than the other books. The author’s note is quite brief, which is perfectly reasonable since the text is so detailed. The author’s sources are listed, including two books by Wangari Maathai. The illustrations feature  bright colours with white borders around shapes and lots of flowing lines. Recommended for ages 8-10.

Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Simon & Schuster, 2010)

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Mama Miti has a narrower focus than the other books. It begins with Wangari learning to love and respect trees and then focuses on the way she helps women from across Kenya with all different problems (lack of food, lack of firewood, lack of shelter, sick cows, wild animals eating chickens, etc.) by telling them what trees to plant. The book ends by explaining that Wangari changed the country tree by tree: “A green belt of peace started with one good woman offering something we can all do: ‘Plant a tree.’” The book definitely emphasizes tradition rather than science, stressing the wisdom of living at peace with nature. I appreciated that each scenario in the story names a specific species of tree and the English and scientific names are provided in the Kikuyu Glossary at the end of the book. There is also a five-paragraph bio, a “Note from the Author,” which lists sources (books and websites) used in her research,  and a “Note from the Illustrator” describing the pictures, which are collage-style, combining oil paints and colourful, printed fabrics. Recommended for ages 5-8.

I hope these short reviews have inspired you to check out one or more of these picture books and learn more about Wangari Maathai’s life and legacy.