I was sipping coffee in a lovely café with glass walls, enjoying the light and feeling of openness. I looked around at the sky and the winter trees, all bare of leaves, limbs like calligraphy against a gray sky. Except the one on which a plastic bag was snagged. It danced in the wind, an ominous trash dance. Even though they’re banned here in Portland, Oregon, they’re still a part of our landscape. They’re still used almost everywhere, all over the world, even in villages in Gambia.
One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, Millbrook Press/Lerner Books, was just released and it brings to light the depth of the plastic bag problem, as well as the innovative way one group of women are dealing with it.
In Njau, Gambia, when the plastic bags broke or were no longer needed, people dropped them. One plastic bag became two, then ten, then hundreds. “The bags accumulated in ugly heaps alongside roads. Water pooled in them, bringing mosquitoes and disease. Some bags were burned, leaving behind a terrible smell. Some were buried, but they strangled gardens. They killed livestock that tried to eat them.”
But people got used to them. We’re very adaptable, even to things that are ugly and destructive. When I wait for the bus here in Portland, I’m amazed at how many people throw down their trash and how the rest of us wait amongst the litter and never pick any of it up. Picking up trash is beneath us; we have other things on our mind.
But Isatou Ceesay wanted change and despite being ridiculed, she became that change. She and a small group of women began to collect and clean the bags. They cut them into strips and crocheted purses. The purses were colorful and practical. Isatou realized that the purses could be a way to help alleviate the poverty of the women in her village.
This is a truly inspiring story and one of the reasons I keep reading “children’s books.” There is hopefulness in them and many publishers, especially the small independent ones, are looking for unsung heroes to celebrate.
Miranda Paul’s writing is clear and lyrical. She met Isatou while teaching and traveling in the Gambia. Miranda is an avid recycler and conservationist. This was a story she “had to tell.”
Her descriptions of village life are vivid and inviting. You feel as if you’re there.
The story is beautifully illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. Her luminous paintings bring the book to life. She uses collage elements that enhance her backgrounds but also make characters more vibrant. (She also illustrated The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba, which I reviewed here.) Her faces and hands are particularly beautiful and expressive. You feel Isatou’s thoughtfulness and hopefulness through Zunon’s paintings.
Here’s a link to a short trailer of the book, so you can see a bit more of Zunon’s art, but of course, the best way to see it is in the book. The screen does it no justice:
The book includes bonus information such as a Wolof language glossary, timeline of actual events, and photos of the women of Njau.
It’s a beautiful book about an ugly topic, with great art, a great solution to a trashy problem, and a great woman who proves one person can make a difference.
Here’s a link to the book’s website which includes lots of links for teachers and families. I could see this being a great book for a family discussion night on environmental topics and different cultures:
And here’s a direct link to a 15 minute video on the Njau Recycle Centre:
Here’s Miranda Paul’s website. She’ll have another book out this year, Water is Water, and two in 2016:
And here’s Elizabeth Zunon’s website. She’s illustrated a book by Nikki Grimes called Poems in the Attic, which will be out in April:
Both Paul and Zunon belong to the wonderful We Need Diverse Books campaign, which you can read about here:
What are you reading these day?