Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees
By Franck Prévot
Illustrated by Aurélia Fronty
Translated from the French by Dominique Clément
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $17.95)
Wangari Maathai lived a remarkable life by anyone’s standards. Born in 1940 to a poor family in rural Kenya, she was the first East African woman to earn a PhD and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Along the way, she worked both to protect Kenya’s land and people from exploitation; in her mind, environmental protection and human rights were closely aligned. Her environmental activism often took a simple and concrete form: planting trees in deforested areas and encouraging others, especially poor women, to do the same.
In Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees, Franck Prévot and Aurélia Fronty introduce young readers to the pioneering activist. Translator Dominique Clément ensures the picture-book biography retains the understated lyricism of the original French narrative: “In shade of the big mugumo, her mother teaches her that a tree is worth more than its wood, an expression Wangari never forgets.” Fronty’s colorful illustrations reflect the interconnectedness Maathai saw between all life. In one striking spread, a leopard poses gracefully in a tree with a slim, twisting trunk. The tendrils of other trees and even smaller plants intertwine with the trunk; a bird perches on one limb. Nearby, a young Wangari, whose name means “She who belongs to the leopard,” peeps from behind two large leaves. Other illustrations flirt with a symbolic surrealism. One spread shows the shoots of various plants, in vivid red, blue, and green, springing from Maathai’s fingertips. The plants’ veins extend down into her hand and arm; a red heart branches off from a vein in her hand, suggesting the love and interdependence that unite all life. A timeline of Maathai’s life and information about Kenya’s current political and environmental situation follow the narrative.
Both teaching tool and a work of art, is a passionate look at the difference one person can make. It should inspire children and adults to improve their corner of the world – even if they only plant a tree.
-Dorothy A. Dahm