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Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia
Written by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Published in 2015 by Millbrook Press
ISBN: 978-1-4677-1608-6-51999
Grades K-6
Book Review
One plastic bag doesn’t seem like many. What about when that plastic bag becomes two or ten or a hundred? In Njau, Gambia, plastic bags were initially a welcome technology. They were cheap, were easy to use, could carry liquids, come in a variety of colors, and seemed disposable. Yet, discarded bags littered the streets and became a health hazard. Water pooled in the bags bringing mosquitos and malaria. Goats foraging for food were eating the bags, sometimes killing the much-needed local livestock. As a young girl, Isatou Ceesay thought the bags were colorful and beautiful. As time went on, she saw the ways the accumulated bags created ugliness and devastation. Something had to change. In One Plastic Bag, Miranda Paul uses sparse text to tell the moving story of Isatou and the women of Gambia who collected thousands of bags and upcycledthem into fashionable, crotched purses that they could sell.  Elizabeth Zunon’s mixed media illustrations vividly depict the paradoxical beauty and ugliness created by the ubiquitous bags. This narrative nonfiction picture book is a welcome read-aloud that serves as a critical reminder for young readers that the transformation of a community is often the result of collective action, problem-solving, and perseverance.
Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
Global Studies: Learn More about the Gambia. After an initial read aloud of One Plastic Bag focused on the storyline, engage students in a repeated read aloud focused on learning more about Gambia. What do students learn about Gambian geography, the Wolof language, gender roles, and the economy of Gambia in their reading? Find Gambia on a map, globe, or by using Google Earth. Learn more about Gambia through Pocket’s Fact Sheet. Read the Author’s Note, which includes more information about Gambia from the author’s travel experiences and the changes she noted over time. Distribute to your class copies of the Wolof Glossary and Pronunciation Guide noticing the beautiful sounds they hear that were sprinkled throughout the body of the text. Support students to consider assumptions they may have about the countries and people of West African nations and take notice of the ways that One Plastic Bag helps disrupt those assumptions.
Upcycling as an Art form. Ceesay sees something endangering her community, and realizes she can do something about it by not only recycling the dangerous plastic bags but by upcycling them into something new. Research with students how people across the world are upcycling to create art towards social change. The author, Miranda Paul, has created a Pinterest pinboard that has curated ways to recycle plastic and other trash and turn it into something new including plastic bag kites, flowers, baskets, and even jewelry.  Gather recyclable items in your classroom as a part of an upcycling center. Photograph student creations and support them to share their story on Miranda Paul’s website. Finally, pair the reading of One Plastic Bag with The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney drawing connections to the ways Isatoo and the fictional character Leila demonstrate ingenuity and creativity by using found objects to create something new and useful.  
Class Debate on Plastic: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly. Gather students into debate teams to prepare for and engage in a live debate about plastic. Support students to notice the benefits of plastic in our everyday lives including bags, cups, and food storage. Also, support students to consider the dangers of plastic including health risks associated with chemicals in plastic and the impact on the environment. Finally, support students to engage in additional research both online and in your school library about plastic (see Resources below).  Read and view with students various media stories about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Build a text set with Loree Griffin Burns’ book Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion and Patricia Newman’s Plastic Ahoy!: Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Consider using the example of coffee K-cups as a specific, seemingly small and inconsequential plastic invention with its enormous environmental impact. Read with students various articles from the Daily News and The Atlantic that share the inventor’s regrets about creating the non-recyclable coffee pod.
Beauty in Unlikely Places. Pair the reading of One Plastic Bag with a reading of Ted Kooser’s Bag in the Wind and a viewing of the plastic bag scene from the film American Beauty. Consider the quote from the film, “Do you want to see the most beautiful thing I ever filmed? It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing. And there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just… dancing with me … like a little kid begging me to play with it.” Discuss with students the ways in which both Miranda Paul and the filmmaker, Thomas Newman, position us to notice the beauty in plastic bags. What are other objects or places that could be considered beautiful when looked at from a new perspective. Have students photograph beauty found in likely places and display their photographs in a gallery-style accompanied by student writing about their pieces.
Mixed Media Illustrating. Elizabeth Zunon uses a variety of media throughout the book including plastic bags photographed for the visually appealing endpapers. Discuss with students their reactions to the endpapers and whether they seem beautiful and in what ways. Notice the use of plastic bags as a medium throughout the text. Notice and name other media Zunon uses including woven palm leaves and hand-drawn illustrations. Gather a variety of local materials including plastic bags to have students create their own mixed media art. Support students to engage in a reflective conversation about their experience using a variety of materials to create something aesthetically pleasing from everyday objects.
Author and Illustrator Study.  Gather other books written by Miranda Paul including Water is Water: A Book about the Water Cycle in a text set (see our Classroom Bookshelf entry on teaching with text sets). What themes overlap across her books? What craft techniques do you see her employ as a writer across texts? Also, gather other books illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon including  The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. In what ways are her illustrations similar and different across the books? In what ways do her illustrations extend the stories as they are told through print?
Researchers Roadmap. Read the Author’s Note at the back of the book and reconstruct with students what the research roadmap may have been for Miranda Paul in coming to write One Plastic Bag. Where did her journey in writing the book begin? Consider the ways in which Miranda Paul noticed a problem with plastic bags in Gambia and how she learned of Isatou Ceesay. In what ways were interviews with Isatou and other women of Gamia central to composing the book? As students embark on their own research journeys, how does Miranda Paul’s roadmap inform their own process as researchers?
Critical Literacy, Grades 4-6
Considering the Social Justice Story. Complicate for students the social justice considerations embedded in One Plastic Bag. In Njau, we see the ways plastic bags were thrown on the ground when they broke littering the streets as mosquito-infested waters pooled in them and animals’ lives were threatened. Ask students to consider these actions from a social justice perspective. Specifically, you can support students to think about the lack of local resources in Njau for trash disposal and compare it with resources in your students’ local community.  Do they, for example, have local recycling centers and grocery store collection of used plastic bags? What should the global response be to help parts of the world with fewer internal resources? In what ways does One Plastic Baggenerate awareness for readers around life in Gambia and the people living there? 
Taking Action. Following Isatou Ceesay’s example, discuss with students ways they can engage in building local awareness about environmental issues such as plastic bag waste.  Pair the reading of One Plastic Bag with George Ancona’s photo essay book Can We Help? Kids Volunteering to Help Their Communities (see our Classroom Bookshelf entry for additional ideas about this book). Support students to work as a class or in small groups to take action and launch their own environmental initiative such as a school-wide recycling program, a plastic bag awareness campaign, or a tote bag sale to give back to a local or global group of their choice. Consider an arts-approach to action including creating a class mural using recycled plastic bags with reminders for the community to recycle. Or, take a photo of the class mural to be used on tote bags. See Further Investigations for resources that can support students with generating other ideas.
Further Investigations
Online Resources
One Plastic Bag website
Miranda Paul: Author Website
How To Recycle Plastic Bags into Purses: Isatou Ceesay – Njau, Gambia YouTube
EPA: Environmental Kids Club
Natural Resources Defense Council: The Green Squad
Earth Day Network
Think Green: Discovery Education
Eco-Friendly Crafts
Nature Explore
Great Pacific Garbage Patch News Sites
Ancona, G. (2015). Can we help? Kids volunteering to help their communities. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
Burns, L. G. (2010). Tracking trash: Flotsam, jetsam, and the science of ocean motion. Boston, MA: HMH Books for Young Readers.  
Gibbons, G. (1992). Recycle: A handbook for kids. Boston: Little Brown.
Henry, S. & Cook, T. (2011). Eco-crafts. New York: Power Kids Press.
Kamkwamba, W. (2016). The boy who harnessed the wind. New York, NY: Puffin Books.
Kooser, R. (2010). Bag in the wind. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
Newman, P. (2014). Plastic, ahoy!: Investigating the great pacific garbage patch. New York, NY: Millbrook Press.
Paul, M. (2015). Water is water: A book about the water cycle. New York, NY: Roaring Book Press.
Seuss, D. (1971). The Lorax. New York: Random House.
Schwartz, L. (1990). Earth book for kids: Activities to help heal the environment. Santa Barbara, CA: Learning Works.
Showers, P. (1994). Where does the garbage go? Ill. by R. Chewning. New York: HarperCollins.
The Earth Works Group. (2008). The new 50 simple things kids can do to save the earth. Ill. by M. Montez & L. Bodger. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishers.
Walsh, M. (2008). Ten things I can do to help my world.Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.

Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.