Monday, November 10, 2008

Cybils Book Review - Wangari's Trees of Peace

Can one person make a difference in this world? If people believe in what you do and follow your example, can/will change occur? One need only read Wangari's Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter, for an unequivocal yes. Wangari Maathai, the 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is the subject of this picture book biography. Written in clear, simple text, and accompanied by vibrant acrylic illustrations, readers learn the story of the woman behind the Green Belt Movement.

Imagine living in a world filled with lush green trees, forests filled with birds, and fields ripe with food for harvest. Imagine leaving that world for the opportunities an education would bring. Imagine returning home to find a world that looks completely different. This is what happened to Wangari.

After six years of study in the United States, Wangari returned to her home in the shadow of Mount Kenya to find that the trees were gone. Where women once collected firewood from close to home, these changes in the landscape now meant they had to walk miles away to find it. There were no longer crops to feed the people, and the birds had disappeared.

The trees in Kenya were cut down to make room for buildings, but new trees were never planted in their place.
Wangari thinks about the barren land.
I can begin to replace some of the lost trees
here in my own backyard--one tree at a time.
She starts by planting nine seedlings.

Watching the seedlings take root gives Wangari
the idea to plant more--
to start a farm for baby trees, a nursery.
In an open space, she plants row after row
of the tiny trees.
Wangari recruited women of the village and gave them seedlings to plant. She shared her vision for a better future, one in which the land was green. Wangari and her women kept planting, even in the face of those who mocked them. Wangari paid them for the seedlings that lived past three months. As the green returned to Wangari's village, women in other parts of Kenya began to plant seedlings too.

Despite all these efforts, the cutting continued. When Wangari placed herself between a stand of mature trees and those who would cut it down, she was beaten and taken to prison. However, the movement to plant trees continued, and the green returned to Kenya. Not only did new trees take root, but the land became rich again with crops.

In page after page we see seedlings being planted and how the landscape begins to change. Near the end of the book, an illustration of the earth with Wangari and her trees firmly planted in Africa is accompanied by the text, "The whole world hears of Wangari's trees and of her army of women who planted them." The book ends full of hope and beauty, as we see the view from the top of Mount Kenya, and row upon row of mature trees.

The author's note in the back provides more information about Wangari and the Green Belt Movement she started in 1977. By 2004, more than 30 million trees had been planted and the movement had spread to 30 African countries and beyond.

It is fitting that this book about an environmentalist is printed on 100 percent recycled paper. I found the story inspirational, and young readers will too, as they see how with one simple action, one woman was able to start a movement that changed the landscape of a nation.

Book: Wangari's Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa
Jeanette Winter
Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books
Date Published:
32 pages
Source of Book:
Personal copy purchased for Cybils consideration.

This post was written for Nonfiction Monday. Head on over to Anastasia Suen’s blog and check out all the great posts highlighting nonfiction this week.


  1. Each year, our third graders read about Johnny Appleseed while they study their unit on trees. This year I used Wangari's Trees of Peace as an alternative to the old Johnny Appleseed stories, and it was so much richer in terms of my students' engagement and the depth of the story. It resonated so much more strongly with my kids: the fact that Ms. Maathai is still alive, that she's an African woman and an activist, and that she was one person making a needed change in her community. Plus the science of it was much closer to the surface, especially the environmental impact of the trees.

    I'm so pleased to have found this book. I'll be reading it every year.

  2. Claire,
    When I was writing this I wrote a whole paragraph on using this book when student study apples. Since Johnny Appleseed is part of our state curriculum in 1st and 2nd grade, we can't get away from him. However, I do think it's important for students to see that others have done this. The fact that this person is so much closer in time, is still alive, a woman and ... I could go on! There are just so many advantages to using this woman's story in the classroom.

    I also recommend the anniversary edition of The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. It is the story of Elzéard Bouffier, a man who spent his life planting one hundred acorns a day in a desolate, barren section of Provence in the south of France. The forward to this edition was written by Wangari Maathai.

  3. I'm really excited to read this book after reading your review. I just picked it up after seeing it a book-lover friend's home. Thanks for the review!

  4. I can't wait to see who Jeanette Winter will write about next! After The Librarian of Basra and now this one, I've got a feeling that she'll be continuing to educate me about people who are making a difference in the world!

  5. I have Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola in my library's collection along with this book. Nivola's book is for a slightly older audience, I think, and both are excellent.

  6. Mary Lee - I feel exactly the same way. I thought she did a terrific job with the story of Pale Male as well.

    Adrienne - The Nivola book is also a Cybils nominee. I haven't seen it yet, but can't wait to review it.

  7. This sounds like a very interesting book.

    My son's school is working on a very cool water tower project with a sister school in Africa (Tanzania). They constructed a water tower with energy for the pump supplied by the kids playing on playground equipment.

  8. I can't wait to see this book. It sounds wonderful.

  9. I love the concept of this book. I teach in a school where children want for little, and this would be a great education for them about what happens outside of our "bubble". I really want to tackle the issue of how we can make a difference this year. What a wonderful resource to have!!

  10. Jeanette Winter's books are all so wonderful and this one sounds particularly special - thank you for your review. The focus of our upcoming issue of PaperTigers will be peace so thank you for pointing out this book - I will definitely have to look it out.