In honor of Earth Day I reviewed Seeds of Change, by Jen Cullerton Johnson. This book is already much decorated, having garnered the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent in Illustration, and a place on the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer List for children’s feminist literature, among other awards.
Seeds of Change, Jen Cullerton Johnson
Johnson’s Seeds of Change traces the story of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which she won in 2004.
As a young girl, Wangari grew up in rural Kenya where she learned a deep appreciation and respect for the natural environment. The great mugumo trees earned a special place in her heart: they provided a home for monkeys, birds, and geckos; tasty fruit for humans and elephants; and a shady resting place for Wangari’s Kikuyu ancestors.
Wangari—bright and thirsty for knowledge—became one of few girls in her day to receive an education. Her love of nature drew her to biology, which she studied first in Nairobi, and eventually in the United States as a university student. During her time in the United States, Wangari was encouraged and empowered by her female professors. After her studies she returned to Kenya and became a professor at the University of Nairobi.
However, things had changed in Kenya since she had left: large companies were cutting down trees and clearing land in the name of “economic progress”. Wangari saw the destruction of the environment, and its dire implications for rural Kenyans, and decided to act. She began a tree planting movement—eventually called the “Green Belt Movement”—that restored both trees and respect for the land in Kenya. Because of this work, and her environmental advocacy around the world, Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
Subjective Appeal: Beautiful Illustrations and Language
Johnson’s Seeds of Change has tremendous subjective appeal. Children will drink in the beauty of Sonia Lynn Sadler’s vivid illustrations. Each page bursts with color and rich detail. I found the portrayal of clothing to be particularly attractive. Throughout, the African characters generally wear the bright hues of traditional African print. Even the westerners in their corporate board room don colorful striped or checked shirts and bold ties. The rich tones used in portraying the natural environment are also stunning.
The language of Seeds of Change is equally beautiful. For example, the book quotes Wangari herself, as she confronts those who opposed her tree-planting campaign: “…like a seedling with sun, good soil, and abundant rain, the roots of our future will bury themselves in the ground and a canopy of hope will reach the sky.” The book is shot through with similarly stirring plant metaphors and language.
Developmental Value: Cross-cultural and Ethical Themes
Johnson’s Seeds of Change also exhibits considerable developmental value. First, the book encourages cross-cultural learning for western readers. The reader encounters interesting snippets of life in rural Africa—e.g., the rich landscape, the diverse ecology, tight-knit family life, traditional foods—and something of the generous East African ethos.
The book also provokes reflection on important ethical issues. The value of caring for the environment is, of course, front and center. However, the reader is also struck by Wangari’s example of courage, and her non-violent approach to conflict and injustice. Moreover, both the emphases of the book and Wangari’s life itself are empowering for girls: Wangari is a leader and a scientist, two roles that women are often culturally discouraged from, even in the contemporary west. As such, Wangari is an inspiring example to our daughters. As a bonus, the proceeds of every copy of the book purchased go to helping plant trees! Thus, the book actually allows families and children to participate in Wangari’s environmental work.
In short, Johnson’s Seeds of Change is beautiful, interesting, and inspiring. I highly recommend it for children in the 6-to-8-years age category, and encourage you to find it in your local library, or to support our work by purchasing the book through the links in this post.
Disclosure: Review copy received from publisher, Lee & Low.
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