Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 13, 2008

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathi and Wangari’s Trees of Peace

Within a few months, two great picture book biographies were published about Wangari Maathai, the first woman in Africa to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004, for her work planting trees in Kenya and founding the Green Belt Movement. Close to simultaneous books on one subject can be disconcerting for authors and publishers, but it can also bring more attention to the honored person and both books. (Of course re timing, four years ago Maathi became not just another strong environmental activist but a Nobel Prize winning one, which makes her story more obviously marketable). I’m glad I’m not forced to choose between the books, but can admire and blog about both.

Planting the Trees of Kenya by Claire Nivola (FSG) gives us a huge story in compact text (with, as common in such books, a substantial and appreciated author’s note). Detailed watercolors call a attention to the big land in many shades of green. As a girl, Wangari’s life seems lived outside, and we learn the fig tree is sacred as she is not to carry its fallen branches home for firewood. After four pages of childhood, we get two pages of her life in America studying biology and gaining confidence from Benedictine nuns. Five years pass before she goes home to a changed landscape in Kenya. The depiction of how life is depleted because of cut trees is elegant and swift. We see Maathai taking matters into her own hands, asking other women to help, and showing how they plant saplings and make nurseries. We learn that in thirty years, thirty million trees have been planted.

The prose and colors are peaceful, whereas in Wangari’s Trees of Peace (Harcourt), Jeanette Winter uses bolder acrylic colors, simplified shapes and often shorter, straightforward sentences. To me this conveys a bit more urgency, which is softened by repeated images – we see many colorful birds at the beginning, mourn their absence, then see them come back; and I like how Wangari’s growth is compared to that of trees. Her time in America is shown on only one page as a boat sails by the Statue of Liberty; the nuns who taught her aren’t mentioned. The toil of planting looks more labored, and there’s more attention to what blocks her: men scoff, and later Wangari “stands tall as an oak” between trees and men with axes. We see her standing tall and alone in jail, then the book ends, like the other, on a note of great hope.

These books will find a welcome place in classrooms, and I hope may be sometimes used with Aani and the Tree Huggers, the first picture book I published thirteen years ago. (When I mentioned 1995, my husband, sitting across the kitchen table, said “Time flies when you’re working your butt off trying to write and sell books.”) I’m so so grateful that Lee and Low has kept this book, illustrated by Venantius Pinto, in print, and I’m thrilled to see from my recent royalty statement that it’s sold over 28,000 copies. Okay, J.K. Rowling might not blink, but it’s a lot of books for me. Keeping books in print, selling slowly but steadily, is the goodness and glamour of old school publishing, which smaller presses are often committed to, and I’m thankful to Lee and Low Books, now celebrating fifteen years of independent publishing.

And here’s a diorama my husband made to honor Aani that Christmas. He molded the tree trunk from Sculpey. The foliage and little birds came from a crafts store, and you may recognize that Aani looks a bit like Jasmine, Aladdin’s sweetheart, out from Disney around that time.


  1. These sound lovely — thanks for the info — and congratulations on having a wonderful book in print so long!!

  2. Writing just a bit about these books made me read them again, which I loved doing, and I know I’ll enjoy further reading: the sign of a great book. I kind of wish I had some classrooms of second graders for a few days anyway!
    And thanks for the congratulations! Who doesn’t love those words; still in print?

  3. Wangari Maathai spoke in Worcester several years ago, and I was lucky enough to hear her and to meet her, briefly, as she signed my copy of UNBOWED. (She wrote: “Peace!”)
    I have seen Claire Nivola’s biography, but did not know Jeanette Winters had done one. Now I know to look for it; thanks for the tip.

  4. Thanks for reading, Loree. How lucky you were to meet her briefly!
    I first read Nivola’s biography and loved it. The Winters one just came out a month or so ago, and I found I liked it in a different way. I guess when you hone down a life to 32 pages, there is room for at least two volumes! Each wonderful, but with different aspects emphasized. Comparing the two you can learn a lot about great picture book biographies!

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