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4.5 out of 5 stars
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon April 15, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )Verified Purchase
I'll confess when I agreed to accept a pre-publication review copy of this book for Amazon Vine, I didn't know who Wangari Maathai was. As I read the read this story about her life, I loved it. I thought, based on Donna Napoli's writing, that she learned about plants from her people and her elders, and later spread this knowledge on to others. She helped them by giving them knowledge that empowered them to help themselves, in what the author refers to as "the green belt of peace". The grassroots effort to restore the vitality of the land through the planting of trees was inspiring.

I feel that the story and its repeating phrases will be of interest to young children. It is perfect for a read-aloud.

As an adult reader I didn't feel the story was entirely clear to explain how planting the trees made Kenya more peaceful (there was a gap of content there), so I'm not sure that children aged 4-8 will understand that either. However I enjoyed the rest of it, and liked the good messages the book conveys.

I was enthralled by the story of living in harmony with nature, knowing the value and use of trees, and not JUST living in a sustainable way but of actually rejuvenating a land that had been abused, having been stripped of trees by man. The picture book has a message of pro-environmentalism, and is uplifting in tone and leaves the reader feeling hopeful. I am grateful the book has a positive tone not an oppressive one like some other books have that tell young kids that `the Earth is doomed'.

I can imagine this being used by school teachers and nature educators. It seems perfectly suited for inclusion in academic studies or pleasure reading about `green living' or `sustainable agriculture' or for general environmental content, or in a botany unit.

The fact that this is about Africa (Kenya) and features a powerful African woman means it will be appreciated by anyone seeking to use children's picture books featuring the topic of geography, Africa, or positive African-American role models. (Please read my review through to the end for more on this.)

Although it is not mentioned in the text of the book, Maathai was the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize this book so this can also be used in biography studies based on those winners which some schools and homeschools do. It can be used in earning the Cub Scout Bear rank (the requirement to read a book about a person who helped the environment).

The illustrations are fantastic. I could tell right away that the collages were composed of fabrics from Africa and I loved that! This is mixed-media, as illustrator Kadir Nelson used oil paints to paint the faces, hands and other body parts.

--

I'm struggling with my opinion of the book now that I've done more research after my curiosity was piqued by reading this book. After the second read-through I read the two pages of information at the back of the book written for adults. It tells more about Maathai, the Green Belt Movement and of her having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. It was in this section that I started to learn of the "deception by omission" of this book. I went on to read more on the Internet including direct quotes from Maathai and watching videos of her speaking about her life and work.

I understand this is a picture book for kids aged 4-8 and I am aware that complicated stories and biographies must be simplified and brought down to a certain level to be age-appropriate. However at present teachers, authors and publishers seem to have no issue with scaring kids about humans destroying the Earth and giving a message to take action to stop or fix the environmental problems that the adults before them created.

I would think then, that kids could handle the omitted facts that it is not common for girls in Kenya to go to primary school and college. Maathai defied the odds and both those things including earning a bachelor and master degree in America with scholarships. She studied for her PhD first in Germany and finished in Africa, being the first African woman to get a PhD. How much of her science degrees were to credit for teaching her the botanical information she used with the Green Belt Movement, I do not know (versus the story's depiction of this wisdom being passed down from elders in the village). It seems to me that all kids could stand to hear an inspiring story about formal education and college degrees being good and useful in the real world.

Maathai's experience in America witnessing free speech in action in Vietnam War protests and seeing the `common people' protesting and trying to make change is what she credits as the source of her inspiration to go on to create a grassroots movement in Kenya. The fact that ideas and freedoms in America (not something happening in Kenya at that time) played such a key role in who Maathai became as a person, and how it affected her life work is absent from the book. (What a shame.)

The issue of the negativity she faced and the discrediting the African men in the government and the community did just because this was a grassroots movement comprised of women is unbelievable. That she stood up to this to make real progress is commendable. Again, I don't know how much of this part of her story would be right for a children's picture book but my point is that Wangari Maathai's story is not all nicey-nice nor was it easy as Napoli's story implies.

In the end this book makes a good story pushing a couple of good environmental messages (which some may label as propaganda). My larger concern is that this book romanticizes what are actually the oppressive traditional African values that Maathai and other women struggled against.

As to the rating, I'm torn. If I didn't know the more complete story I'd rate this 5 stars for the writing and 5 stars for the illustration. However I'm bringing it down to 3 stars = It's Okay due to the fictionalization of this story for the intention of pushing certain messages to children while leaving out other positive messages.

Postscript: Lest you think I hate the book, I don't. I liked the book enough to have already purchased a copy to give as a gift to someone seeking books about botany and the environment.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )Verified Purchase
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and The Trees of Kenya is a fictionalized account of the early childhood of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Recipient, Dr. Wangari Maathai and her work to stop deforestization in the East African country of Kenya.

Mama Miti is part biography, part fiction; part Sunday morning sermon, part ecology lecture; part Dr. Seuss, part Kahlil Gibran.

"Mama Miti" as a young girl was taught by her tribal elders the significance of caring for the natural environment and, especially, for trees. She was also taught there was an indefinable spiritual link that enabled trees, by their mere presence or any of its parts, be it fruit or limb, to provide nourishment, protection or overall peace to the community. When trees were removed, Miti was taught, the foundation of a community was also destroyed. Miti carried this message into adulthood.

Some time had passed and Miti was now a vendor who sat beneath a palm tree in the center of Kenya. Miti also developed a reputation as a renaissance woman whose advice brought prosperity ("Thayu nyumba") to those who sought it.

One by one, women came from all over, "Mama Miti...our goats are starving...wild animals steal my chickens...our stream is too dirty to drink from...my home fell apart." Each time, her response was "plant a tree!"

Not immediately, but over the course of time, Kenya flourished. Open fields became green with vegetation, communities grew, and peace abound.

***** ******** ******
The spiritual connection to trees and plant life was verified to me when, in a discussion with Kenyan scholars, I learned that the book didn't express the full extent of how trees are revered by many of Kenya's ethnic tribes.

According to them, many religious services are held underneath a tree and only if a tree is available. Some sects even mandate that burial services be held at designated tree(s). This (or these) tree served as burial markers with the explicit warning that that tree is not to be desecrated or removed by fear of some form of esoteric retribution.

***** ******** ******
The real life Wangari Maathai's life was not too far from the fictionalized account. A native Kenyan, Ms. Maathai went to school abroad and was the first African woman to earn a PhD (1968). While working with her husband, a populist politician, in the 70's & 80's, Maathai joined many local and international relief efforts to bring economic revitalization and ecological advancements to her native country. Soon she started her own NGO, "The Green Belt Movement," which had as its primary purpose to plant trees in desolate places. For her many efforts, Dr. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Prize, the first for an African Woman.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Another tour de force for Kadir Nelson, who's fast becoming one of the country's pre-eminent book illustrators. Here, he uses a dazzling array of textures, colors, patterns, and cinematic techniques (a panoramic long shot on one page, a close-up on another) to capture the large (the environment, the diversity of life) and small (the personal) forces that propel the poor to seek help from "Wangari." For those who come to the book naiively (like me), the revelation that the saint-like Wangari is Wangari Muta Maathai, the first African American women to win the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2004) is astonishing. Her story, from veterinary medicine to founding the Green Belt Movement to halt deforestation in Kenya, is even more astonishing because it's true.

Although these facts are included in the informative afterward, Napoli downsizes the story to the toddler and elementary school-age set by focusing on Wangari's aid to individuals and families. Wangari helps them by recommending different varieties of trees: Mukinduri for firewood, mukawa to protect wildstock from predators, muthakwa wa athi to cure sick cattle, even a tree "which acts as nature's filter to cleam streams"--the giant sacred fig. Donna Jo Napoli and Nelson create an almost mythic tableau, supported by Napoli's short descriptive sentences (interspersed with words spoken by Kenyan natives) that evoke an oral story-telling structure.

Here, a woman who has lost her job, worried about feeding her family comes to her for help: "Wangari took the woman's hands and turned them over. She took the children's hands one by one. 'These are strong hands. Here are seedlings of the mubiru mubiru tree. Plant them. Plant as many as you can. Eat the berries."Like any useful knowledge, these words spread throughout the land, forming (as illustrated by the talented Nelson) a quilt of lands and families helped by Wangari.

Napoli and Nelson tap into Wangari's spirit: A deeply humanity runs through the book, and Wangari seemed blessed by the gentle and generous power of nature. At the same time, the story takes on real problems with practical solutions, showing that small steps can build into something greater. Together, the story and jaw-dropping illustrations (Nelson states in the "Illustrator Notes" that he used oil paints and printed fabrics on gessoed board--although I still don't know how he did it) make this an ideal book for any classroom or home. The age-appropriate story covers many important personal and social issues with gorgeous illustrations and a melodious, easy-flowing text.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 3, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
"Mama Miti" means mother of trees. This story is the folktale version of how one woman saved Kenya from deforestation one tree at a time. As a child, Wangari Maathai listened to stories about the old days and learned to love trees. When she grew up, she planted all kinds of trees in her backyard. Poor women came from all over the country to see her and told her their problems. She gave each of them a seedling from the right kind of tree to solve their problem, along with a blessing, "Thayu nyumba - Peace, my people."

Napoli accomplishes much with this simple tale. She portrays African culture and educates readers about the life sustaining qualities of specific trees. The glossary in the back of the book lists each tree and summarizes its use. The afterword contains a short biography of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. A note from the author describes the Green Belt Movement which she founded.

Nelson's stunning illustrations, done with oil paints and printed fabrics on gessoed board, bring African culture to life. Each page is an exquisite work of art depicting the beautiful faces and rich colorful landscape of Kenya.

"Mama Miti" is both a treasured keepsake and a unique way to show young children about the importance of trees in our environment.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2010
Format: Hardcover
In this brilliantly illustrated picture book, Wangari Maathai is shown as a wise woman in Kenya with a strong devotion to the environment, and to trees in particular. She grew up listening to stories about her people and the land around her, and became devoted to restoring it to the way it had once been. As her reputation grew throughout the land, other women came to her with their problems, such as too little food, no shelter, difficulties collecting firewood etc. Her wise recommendations always involved the planting of a tree. As she and the other women of Kenya planted trees, the countryside grews strong and verdant again. By 2004, when Mathai received the Nobel Peace Prize, her Greenbelt Movement had planted 30 million trees in Africa.

The illustrations by Kadir Nelson are stunning. They are rendered with oil paints and printed fabrics on gessoed board. Nelson states at the end of the book that he hopes he's "been able to capture the spirit and culture of Kenya, Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement."
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I teach 10 Liberians how to read every Sunday. When I read this book, it reminded me of their spirit. The images capture the colors and vibrancy of the African culture, as much as it can be generalized from Liberia to Kenya. It's told in a folktale style, with a repeating refrain of Thayu nyumba -- Peace, my people. There is strength found in other women and their relationships, and this demonstrates that beautifully as the main character gives advice to other women to solve their problems. Her advice is always to plant a tree. Each one is told about a different tree, but a tree nonetheless. It's based on Wangari Maathai, of The Green Belt Movement, who is an advocate for women's rights and the environment and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. It's only based on her though. This is a story, rather than a biography, and intended to be enjoyed for the music of the words and the color on the pages.

This would be great for Arbor Day or Black History month in the classroom.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 26, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This beautifully colorful illustrated book is perfect in length and will hold the attention of any small child. The pictures and colors are what really make the book pop.
This is the story of a women named Wangeri who grew up in the shadow of Mt. Kenya. She is wise and understands the earth. Through stories of others she helps women bring back life to their villages by planting trees. Trees for food, trees for keeping predators out and for many other reasons. She also, though her kindness teaches that old tale of "give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for a life time".
Written by Donna Jo Napoli and Illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Published by Simon & Schuster books for young readers.
I believe this is a wonderful addition to any home or library.
The only suggestion. Phonetics for some of the names and words that will be foreign to many people across the globe. But, that in no way diminishes this wonderful tale. 5 Stars! Great read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon May 20, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
My wife is an elementary school teacher and she and I were both very impressed with this book. The illustrations, as other reviewers have mentioned, are quite astonishing. This adds a lot to children's experience of the book.

Beyond the illustrations, however, this is a useful depiction of an important Kenyan figure. My wife noted that often Africa and Asia are largely omitted in the school curriculum, and their cultural icons are frequently not acknowledged. This is an engaging way to introduce students to not only Wangari Maathai's life, but aspects of Kenyan culture and the principles that Maathai applied to her work. This book is a valuable resource for parents or teachers.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 18, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I had not heard of Wangari Maathai when I first read this book. I was happy to see that the inside front panel and last pages, were filled with information about Wangari and all she has achieved in her life. As I went on to read the book, it left me wanting more. The book skips over Wangari's travels to the United States and Germany, her schooling in these countries, and her study of animals and nature (all mentioned in the Afterword of the book). The story doesn't seem to even touch on the information given in the back of the book. When I read it, it seemed that this woman grew up in Kenya and just decided to plant trees in her yard. Then women started coming to her with needs such as food, fire wood, animal sickness/hunger, shelter, etc. and Wangari suggested planting trees and provides the women with seeds. I would have loved to have heard more about her story... what made her decide to plant trees and start the "Greenbelt Movement" in Kenya? I also didn't understand how planting trees made Kenya "strong and peaceful", I would have liked to have learned why. I wouldn't say this is an accurate Bibliography but I do think it works for introducing the name Wangari Maathai to children and teaching them the basic message of what Wangari did for her homeland. It sends the message that planting trees and respecting nature can help heal a lot of things, and solve a lot of problems for some.

I liked the fact that there is a Glossary in the back with many words in the Kikuyu language. I appreciated the websites listed to get more information from and I also really enjoyed the illustrations, they are just breathtaking. All in all I think this book has a nice message but I would have liked to have seen it a little more specific and clear on who Wangari Maathai is, and what she has done and how she did it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Mama Miti. (4 stars) This book takes a unique approach.
On each page Wagari is approached as a wise woman by villagers
who have specific problems. She listens respectfully and observes
them carefully, then makes a recommendation tailored their
individual situation. This empowers them to achieve the solution
to the problem. A few follow-up sentences for each confirm that
the "prescription" was a success.

This the third of three excellent books on the life and work
of Wagari Maathi, who received the Nobel Peace prize for
her work to combat deforestation in Kenya. This one has
remarkably true-life artistic renderings of faces and hands
which draw the reader emotionally into each encounter.

The deforestation in developing countries is an important topic,
not just for the local area but for the planet. The other two books
(Wagari's Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter and
Planting Trees of Kenya: the Story of Wagari Maathi by Claire Nivola)
emphasize different aspects of the problem, and present the story in three
different artistic styles. I have read all three to 3 and 5 year old children
over a period of months and they appreciated learning more about
someone with whom they were familiar.
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