Elevate Difference

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa

Wangari’s Trees of Peace is a beautifully imagined account, designed for young readers, of the life and career of Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan scholar, activist, and environmentalist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her leadership of the Green Belt Movement and her resistance to deforestation. Often, “message books” like these underestimate kids’ level of sophistication and come across as preachy or cloying. In my experience, kids are wary of being propagandized and tune out adult condescension. On the other hand, they are often responsive to environmental issues and moved to action by abuses such as those depicted by Jeanette Winter. What makes this book especially remarkable is that its author does not soft-pedal the hardships that Wangari Maathai faced in her challenge to political authority, even the violence and imprisonment she suffered is represented graphically.

Winter, who provides simple yet colorful and evocative illustrations as well as an age-appropriate narrative, begins the book with an image of shelter: stylized trees in the shadow of Mount Kenya with goats frolicking and a young girl basking in the shade. Wangari is illustrated gathering firewood with her mother, again under the shelter of trees leafed with birds. She and her mother are depicted harvesting crops under a benevolent sun. She then leaves to study in America, and returns to see a land of tree stumps and unhappy women searching great distances, under a much more menacing-looking sun, for wood. Wangari asks poignantly, “And where are the birds?”

The next illustration shows Wangari crying as she imagines Kenya becoming a treeless desert. She then decides to plant trees in her own backyard, cares for them, and then shares her seedlings with others in the village. The trees represent hope, and the other village women embrace the gifts. The trees become “like a green belt stretching over the land”—the author’s nod to the environmental movement Maathai founded.

The book next represents her clash with authority—her standing between the trees and men with axes eager to build an office tower. She is depicted being hit by a club and bloodied by men who “call her a troublemaker and put her in jail.” And yet, in spite of her isolation, we are told she is not really alone, and the women and their trees fill the land with thirty million symbols of hope. Again, the images depict a land of shelter, trees filled with birds, women working happily together. Finally, the book tells of the world’s discovery of Wangari and her victory.

The book justifiably steers clear of some of the controversies that seem inevitably to beset public figures, including remarks she has made about HIV/AIDS. Rather, it focuses on the central figure’s courage and remarkable accomplishments, and the change that women working together can effect.

Written by: Rick Taylor, October 14th 2008