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Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees

Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees
Written by Franck Prevot and Illustrated by Aurelia Fronty
Published in 2015 by Charlesbridge
ISBN 978-1-58089-626-9
Grades 3 – 8
Book Review
“Wangari’s mother gives her a little garden. Wangari learns to dig and plant. In the shade of the big mugumo, her mother teaches her that a tree is worth more than its wood, an expression that Wangari never forgets.” In a striking picture book biography, French author Franck Prevot describes how these seeds, sewn early, led to a lifetime of advocacy for environmentalist and social activist, Wangari Maathai. Prevot’s provocative text explores the political context for Wangari’s advocacy efforts, highlighting the complexities of Kenya’s efforts toward establishing democracy,  economic independence, and equal rights. Against this backdrop, Wangari Maathai, “the woman who planted millions of trees,” founds the Green Belt Movement, an organization dedicated to reforestation, which engages women across the African continent in the replanting of African trees. Fronty’s illustrations immerse readers in the colors of Kenya and add emotional tension to Wangari’s unwaivering commitment to the landscape and peoples of her beloved Kenya. The helpful back matter includes photographs, a timeline, a map of Kenya’s vegetation, quotations, and an update on deforestation across the globe. Equally useful in curriculum units on women’s rights, movements for social justice, environmentalism, and African heritage, this stunning biography will inspire readers to plant their own seeds of hope and change.  
Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom
Picture Book Biographies of Maathai. Learn more about Wangari Maathai by reading multiple picture book biographies that narrate her life story. Compare the presentation of Wangari’s childhood and adult accomplishments across five books: Seeds of change: Planting a Path to Peace, Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya. Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees, Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai, and Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa (see full references for these titles listed below). This excellent collection offers your students the opportunity to learn more about Wangari and about the process of writing biography. Construct a chart to compare aspects of the books including: titles, text structures, narrative arc, presentation of key events, included back matter, and the role of the illustrations. If content learning is your focus, extend your study of Wangari’s life by exploring the array of digital resources that elaborate her life and work. The links below include the Green Belt Movement website, Wangari’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and her obituary.
The Colors of Kenya.  French illustrator Aurelia Fronty’s illustrations immerse readers in the colors and culture of Kenya. Use an overhead projector to display National Geographic’s collection of photgraphs of Kenya. Invite your students to compare the colors and images with those used by Fronty to narrate Wangari’s life story. Next, recruit the help of your art specialist to emulate Fronty’s style, creating landscape images from your surroundings. Notice how Fronty uses varied background colors. Invite students to take photographs of scenes outdoors near their homes. Next, study the photographs to identify predominant colors in the scenes. Use these colors as backdrops for students’ paintings, inviting students to interpret their surroundings against a color saturated background.
Role of the Tree in an Ecosystem. Expand students’ understanding of the role that trees play within an ecosystem by reading additional texts in a solar system model (see our Teaching with Text Sets entry). Suggested texts include: April Pulley Sayre’s Trout are Made of Trees, Wendy Pfeffer’s A Log’s Life, Shawn Sheehy’s Welcome to the Neighborwood, and Melissa Stewart’s No Monkeys, No Chocolate. Students working in small groups to read these texts can create a visual display (using poster paper or a digital tool such as Prezi or Coggle) to represent the interrelationships illustrated in their text.
Advocates for Trees. Compare Wangari’s life story and accomplishments with those of other individuals who have advocated for the restoration or planting of trees. Nonfiction picture books are an excellent starting point for this investigation. Joseph Hopkins’s The Tree Lady: The True Story Of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed A City Forever describes Kate Sessions’s efforts to create parks and green spaces in San Diego. Susan Roth and Cindy Trumbore’s The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees To Save Families describes Dr. Gordon Sato’s efforts to alleviate hunger in the African country of Eritrea through the planting of Mangrove trees. Sy Montgomery’s photo-essay Quest For The Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition To The Cloud Forest Of New Guinea highlights efforts to protect an endangered species through the preservation of a forest habitat. Students can work in small groups to read these texts, noting: the motivations of the individual or organization involved, the focus of advocacy, the pathways / processes of advocacy, the accomplishments, and how efforts are being continued. Bring the conversation back to your local community by finding an individual or organization focused on tree conservation. Invite a speaker to your classroom to discuss this work.
Trees in Your Area. Conduct a tree inventory in your town or neighborhood to get a full range of the tree population. Your local town, city, county, or state forest or park service be a useful resource for getting started. Next, with the help of your local reference librarian or local historical society, find maps of your town or city over the past one hundred and fifty years. What areas of town or neighborhoods within the city still have trees compared to the 19th century? Mid-20th century? Are there any areas that are more forested than they were a century ago because of a decline in farming? What are some ways that your students can take action to further preserve local trees? Are there any particularly old or unique trees that might deserve special status? Are there areas of your town or neighbors in your city that might benefit from additional trees? What can your students do to make this happen? 
Mapping the World’s Trees. Explore the diversity of the tree as a species, investigating a variety of trees from around the world. With your students, create an oversized map of the world and assign students to each continent with the task of researching the trees that grow in this geographic area and creating a three dimensional model of the tree to place on the map. You will want to agree on a common scale so that students can ultimately compare the relative size of the trees as part of a discussion of the relationship between the trees and their climates. Extend this activity by using Google Earth 3D Trees.  
Nobel Peace Prize. Since 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to an individual or organization who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” In 2004, Wangari was awarded this prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Invite your students to learn more about additional individuals who have been awarded this prize. While the official website for Nobel Prize Laureates provides a wealth of information, you will want to dig deeper, exploring the links between life experiences and the role of advocate for social change.  Picture book biographies of the recipients are an excellent starting point. Familiar prize recipients include:  Barak Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and  Theodore Roosevelt. Begin with biographies of these familiar subject and then explore the work of those recipients to whom students may not yet have been introduced.
“Mining the Back Matter.” More frequently, authors of nonfiction for children are providing additional information in the form of “back matter” in their books. Guide students to examine the back matter in Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees, creating a two column chart naming the kinds of information found there and describing the benefit of this information to the reader, for example: a timeline provides a broader time framework for the events described in the book. Offer students a collection of nonfiction texts with back matter, listing the variety in kinds of information and formatting that students notice across the texts. If students are composing nonfiction texts themselves, guide them to consider how adding back matter could enhance the text they are creating.
Critical Literacy
Short Term Gain, Long Term Loss: Deforestation. “If the current rate of deforestation were to continue, the earth’s forests would be gone in two hundred years.” This startling quote, found on page 44, has deep implications for the future of our planet. Engage your students in an investigation of deforestation across the globe. Use the digital resources below as a starting point to investigate why deforestation is happening, what products we consume that are produced through deforestation, and what are the potential effects of deforestation. Be sure to tease out the complexities of this issue. As starting point, return to Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees to note how deforestation continued after Kenyans gained independence. Wangari needed to convince her fellow native Kenyans that the long term loss created by cutting trees was greater than the potential short term economic gain. Following an exploration of the issues worldwide, invite students to make connections locally – how can they take a stance on the issue? What can they do to create change? Be sure to find an authentic audience for students’ findings and advocacy statements.
Further Explorations
Digital Resources
Charlesbridge Activity and Discussion Guide
Time for Kids: Seeds of Hope
Aurelia Fronty: Illustrator Website
National Geographic Photos: Kenya
NYTimes Sunday Book Review: She Speaks for the Trees
Wangari Maathai, The Green Belt Movement
Wangari Maathai Obituary, The New York Times
Wangari Maathai Obituary, The Guardian, London
“Wangari Maathai: Death of a Visionary,” The British Broadcasting Corporation
Wangari Maathai Biography, The Nobel Prize Official Site
“Taking Root” Documentary of Wangari Maathai
Wengari Maathai’s Nobel Lecture Excerpt, December 2004
NPR Interviews with Wangari Maathai
Nobel Peace Prize
Teaching with Text Sets: Tree Text Set: Digital Resources
The Asahi Glass Foundation: Blue Planet Prize: Dr. Gordon Sato, 2005

Manzanar Mangrove Initiative

The Manzanar Project

National Geographic: ‘Mangroves, Forests of the Tide”
Rodrido Baleia: Amazon by Cessna 2008
WSJ: Paradise Lost: Aerial Images of Deforestation in the Amazon
WWF: Deforestation and Climate Change
Google Earth 3D Trees
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations
National Arbor Day Foundation
Forests: Policy and Practice
Florian, D. (2010). Poetrees. Beach Lane Books.
Hopkins, H.J. (2013). The Tree Lady: The True Story Of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed A City Forever. Illustrated by J. McElmurry. Beach Lane Books.
Johnson, J.C. (2010). Seeds of change: Planting a Path to Peace. Illustrated by S.L. Sadler. Lee & Low.
Montgomery, S. (2006). Quest For The Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition To The Cloud Forest Of New Guinea. Houghton Mifflin.
Napoli, D.J. (2010). Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya. Illustrated by K. Nelson. Simon & Schuster.
Nivola, C.A. (2008). Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Pfeffer, W. (1997). A Log’s Life. Illustrated by R. Brickman. Simon & Schuster.
Roth, S., Trumbore, C. (2011). The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees To Save Families. Ill. by S. Roth. New York: Lee and Low.
Sayre, A. P. (2008). Trout are Made of Trees. Illustrated by K. Endle. Charlesbridge.
Sheehy, S. (2015). Welcome to the Neighborwood. Candlewick Pess.
Classroom Bookshelf Entry at
Stewart, M. (2013). No Monkeys, No Chocolate. Illustrated by N. Wong. Charlesbridge.
Classroom Bookshelf Entry at
Winter, J. (2014). Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan. Beach Lane Books.
Classroom Bookshelf Entry at:
Winter, J. (2008). Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa. Harcourt.

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.