Celebrating Women’s History Month: Wangari Maathai

By Faith Ward

“We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our wounds – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder.”

-Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 2004

Born in rural Kenya in 1940, Wangari Maathai became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She then became a professor at the University of Nairobi. Additionally, she served as a member of Kenya’s parliament. In 1976, while serving on the National Council of Women, she first introduced the idea of community-based tree planting. She continued to develop this idea by creating the Green Belt Movement which fought to reduce poverty and foster environmental conservation through tree planting. Wangari Maathai’s initiative and the subsequent planting of trees by many in Africa have resulted in an estimated 30 million trees where there were none.  In recognition of her commitment to the environment she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She was also named a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2009. Women’s History Month is an opportunity to highlight the work of Wangari Maathai and the picture books described below from the Peace Study Center’s collection are excellent resources for introducing her life and work to children.

Each of the following titles encourage readers to think about how they may change their environment and the world, peacefully. They could also be used in a unit on biography, science, conservation, or African history.

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 2008)
The simple text and colorful illustrations make this book an inviting read for young children. In the beginning of the book we learn about Wangari Maathai’s early life and hear her questions about the deteriorating environment she observes around her. “Where are the trees? Where are the birds?” Ms. Winter draws us into this remarkable woman’s life story, leaving a lasting impression of how her determination and peaceful response changed the landscape of our world.


Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli and illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
Told using sparse text and repeated use of the phrase “Thayu Nyumba – Peace, my people” this is a richly illustrated introduction to Wangari Maathai’s work. Caldecott winning illustrator Kadir Nelson rendered the artwork for this book using oil paint and printed fabrics on gessoed board. The artist states that his inspiration to use these materials came from African culture, rich with textiles and color.

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai (Frances Foster Books)
by Clare Nivola (Farrar, Straus, and Giraux, 2008)
This story provides wonderful detail on the environmental degradation Wangari Maathai witnessed in the short time she spent out of Kenya studying in the United States. The book also details the educational work she did with inmates in prison and with soldiers to teach them to plant seedlings.

Many of the authors used primary sources in accomplishing their research about Wangari Maathai’s life and work in order to write their books. These resources are documented in the afterword and author’s notes. Many of the noted resources can be accessed using the web. They provide a pathway for students to do further research on their own about this remarkable woman.

For further reading access the Green Belt Movement web site at

Faith Ward is a Librarian at Garrison Forest School. Ms. Ward has an MLS from the Catholic University of America and holds an MA Ed in Literacy from Loyola University MarylandShe is currently a member of the Maryland Association of School Librarian’s Black Eyed Susan Award Committee.

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