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Book review: ‘Mama Miti,’ by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Kadir Nelson


When Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, her Green Belt Movement had planted 30 million trees in Africa, starting in her native Kenya. Her big-picture approach has also led to a healthy crop of children’s books, including this new one, whose big pictures are especially dazzling. For the text, Donna Jo Napoli has taken a folkloric route, beginning with a procession of village women who come to Maathai for advice on how to survive with too little food, firewood or shelter. Using the names of trees from her native language, she suggests planting different species to address each woman’s worry, like a doctor prescribing medicine. Illustrator Kadir Nelson intensifies the text’s tribute to East African culture, mixing oil paints and textiles in collages that capture the quest of women looking for answers as well as the beauty and vastness of Maathai’s project. Although these richly hued illustrations don’t resemble those in Nelson’s monumental “We Are the Ship” (2008), about Negro League baseball players, “Mama Miti” (which means “the mother of trees”) makes vibrantly clear how strong and resourceful Maathai and other African women have been in restoring trees and peace to their world.images

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