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Inspiration from across the seas

Start your New Year off right by sharing with young readers one of the most inspiring children’s books of 2008. “Planting the Trees of Kenya” by Claire A. Nivola is the true story of 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, a woman who changed her country one tree at a time. 

Wangari grew up in the hills of central Kenya among abundant fig trees and clear streams full of fish.  But when she returned home after spending five years studying biology in an American college, she found Kenya transformed.  Now farmers were encouraged to raise crops for export, and the formerly abundant trees had been cut down to make room for more farms.  The land was as bare as a desert, with “devil winds” blowing away the topsoil.

Instead of blaming the government or the people, Wangari did something about it herself.  Her “simple and big idea” was to plant trees, easier said than done in a country where water can be hard to find.  Wangari and the women she recruited to her cause learned not to give up but to keep working to change their lives.  Most of the women were illiterate, not taken seriously by the government, but as their trees grew and thrived, they felt a growing pride in their own efforts.

Wangari took her message to everyone in Kenya, even to soldiers, telling them, “You should hold the gun in your right hand and a tree seedling in your left.  That’s when you become a good soldier.”  Thirty years after she started her project, Wangari’s efforts have resulted in the planting of thirty million trees in Kenya.

In this picture book biography for ages 7-10 Nivola includes only a few details about Wangari’s personal life, but an author’s note and acknowledgement of sources offer information for older readers.  Her textured watercolor illustrations show Wangari almost always with other people, emphasizing her leadership and her place in the community.  The final double page spread of the landscape dotted with people planting trees is a stirring portrayal of the change she has brought to Kenya.  Young readers may well be moved to make a small but significant change in their own communities.

The true story of ballet dancer Li Cunxin is the basis for another inspiring new picture book, “Dancing To Freedom.”  Growing up in grinding poverty in a small village in Mao’s China, Li was chosen at age eleven, out of millions of children, to attend Beijing Dance Academy.  Although he was separated from his family, he recognized this unusual opportunity for a better life and dedicated himself to working as hard as he could to advance.  His career eventually took him around the world, including to America. 

His book for adults, “Mao's Last Dancer,” provides more detail about his defection and his later career.  In this edition for young readers, he simply emphasizes the joy he felt when he was finally able to reunite with his parents after years of separation.

Australian illustrator Anne Spudvilas traveled with Li to his home village in China and studied traditional Chinese brush painting.  Using ink, watercolor and oil paints, she provides a lyrical line and softly washed colors to tell the moving story of a poor boy who followed the path of grueling work to success and freedom.