Sometimes I love the books I read with my daughters because of the delightful, uninhibited play they inspire. Other times I love the books we read together because they engage us with something bigger; they cause us to reflect upon our actions and the world around us and encourage thoughtfulness and care. Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson is a recent find that has done both these things for us.
Mama Miti is an enduring story with fable-like quality about a woman who loves trees. She knows which trees are good to harvest for firewood, which trees are best for building with, which tree leaves have medicinal properties as well as the trees which provide food for both people or animals and she happily shares this knowledge with the women she meets. In doing so, these women, armed with knowledge (and saplings!) are able to build better homes and communities, to provide more for their families and to build a more sustainable future – in fact all the things I try to do in my own small way.
It’s a fantastic book for stimulating discussion with your kids about plants and trees around you and what uses they have, what you can harvest from them, and why we might want to ensure that we continue to have plenty of trees and plants around us.
It’s a brilliant book for encouraging you to keep faith in the idea that small changes will eventually add up to something substantial that makes a difference.
It’s an inspirational book for anyone, but particularly girls wanting to read about amazing, strong women – it is actually a biography of Wangari Muta Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I left out this fact till now as Mama Miti is one of those non-fiction books which probably provide librarians with a puzzle – should it be shelved with literature, perhaps amongst picture books for slightly older children, or on the non fiction shelves (Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca which I reviewed here is another such dilemma posing book). Mama Miti is definitely a story that can be enjoyed for its writing and resonance first and foremost – the revelation that it is actually a true story about a real woman only further delighted M (and me!)
Kadir Nelson‘s illustrations are amazing – yet another reason to love this book! He has created artwork primarily using scraps of African cloth, providing his illustrations with great visual texture which reward repeated, detailed observation. The use of African fabrics paradoxically really roots Napoli’s tale which has so much universality in it.
Our first response to this book was to find out more about the trees the grow near us. I was rather ashamed to realise that I couldn’t name most of the trees we see every day. So a tree nature trail is what we set out on.
I created sticky sandwich boards for the girls to wear and on which they could collect leaves from the different trees we found. The boards were made out of cardboard, hung together with strips of ribbon, attached using split pin paper fasteners. I attached a sheet of contact (sticky, transparent) paper to the front board simply using tape.
Wearing our sandwich boards we walked through our local parkland looking for different trees. Every time we found one we each took a leaf and stuck it on our boards.
Flowers and fruit discovered along the way also got added!
I came up with the idea of sandwich boards as I wanted the girls to be able to keep both hands free whilst we were out collecting things and also to make it easy to check whether the latest leaf we found was actually one we already had or not – simply looking at our boards was easier than rummaging through a basket or bag of leaves.
As we walked along collecting our leaves lots of people stopped us and asked us what we were doing – they were really interested in our little project – and I was glad it gave us an opportunity to talk with neighbours and other people in the park as well as enabling us to look closely at the trees around us.
Once we were home we were able to use our leaves to identify the trees we had walked passed (and in some instances climbed), and to discover some different uses for the said trees. One website we found useful for this was British Trees. I should also highlight the Nature Detectives website from the Woodland Trust – it is packed full of fantastic activities for kids, with hundreds of amazing, free downloads. Whilst this is a British organization, and therefore focusses on UK flora and fauna, I’m sure it could inspire you wherever in the world you are based.
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya: *** (3 stars)
Music to spot trees by:
Other lovely tree activities:
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya reminded me of this poem (sometimes attributed to Celia Congreve, first published in The Times on March 2nd 1930):
Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year;
Oaken logs burn steadily
If the wood be old and dry;
But ash dry or ash green
Makes a fire fit for a queen.
Logs of birchwood burn too fast,
There’s a fire that will not last;
Chestnut’s only good they say
If for long it’s laid away;
But ash new or ash old
Is fit for a queen with a crown of gold.
Poplar makes a bitter smoke
Fills your eyes and makes you choke;
It is by the Irish said
Hawthorn makes the sweetest bread;
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a queen with a golden crown
Elmwood burns with a churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold;
Apple logs will fill your room
With an incense like perfume;
But ash wet or ash dry
For a queen to warm her slippers by.
I would love to contact a local tree surgeon to get some samples of these different woods to compare and then to burn – a fire is always fun and I think it would be a great little investigative project to see if the folk truth in this poem is true.
Do you have a favourite tree you walk past on your way to school or work? Can you name all the trees in your neighbourhood? What other lovely tree books would you recommend – either fiction or non fiction? I’d love to know of a tree guide (preferably a UK or European one) that you think is particularly good.