Review of One Plastic Bag

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?
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Dreams Grow Despite Droughts

I found the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, from a display in the children’s department at the library.  It’s where I find a lot of the books I love.  I was enticed by the illustrations.  Zunon captures so much emotion in the faces she paints.  The collages of textured paper of her backgrounds give life and motion to the illustrations, they seem rise from the page.


This is the true story of how William Kamkwamba, a fourteen year old boy built a windmill to give his family electricity.  What’s more remarkable is that he did this on his own after having to drop out of school because of a drought and famine.  

He lives in Malawi, Africa, and his family was down to one meal consisting of one handful of food each day.


William loved school, so he was despondent about having to drop out, and then he remembered his village’s small library.  He checked out and pored over old science textbooks, painstakingly teaching himself English.



He fell in love with the idea of a windmill and decided to build one. 



Ever resourceful, he began to gather materials from the junkyard.  His two friends helped him, but almost everyone in the village thought he’d gone a little crazy.  Even his mother was alarmed.

But William persisted



 and brought forth the electric wind. 


This is a hopeful story and is a window into life in Malawi.  We know so little about Africa here in America.  This is a great introduction to one small village.  It’s also a great book for showing how even the fiercest obstacles to your dreams can be overcome. 

I have to add that the pictures I’ve posted here don’t do the illustrations justice.  Zunon’s work pops from the pages and adds magic to the story.  You can see more of her work at her website by clicking here.  I’m looking forward to seeing her illustrations for Miranda Paul’s One Plastic Bag.

I was so impressed with the story that I wanted to find out how much of it was truly true, so I

got the other book called  The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Currents of Electricity and Hopeby the same authors.  It’s Kamkwamba’s memoir of how he survived the drought and built the windmill.


Kamkwamba gives insight on what it’s like to believe in magic, how it feels to have a village chief, what it means to have a good father, and how hard it is to survive a famine.  

If you ever wondered about the individual lives of people you see on the news stampeding for a bagful of rice or flour, this book takes you there.  The humanity and desperation becomes more real.  The famine forced people to sell things they’d worked for all their lives–from household possessions to the roofs off their houses.

Kamkwamba’s parents kept track of how much they ate and how much they needed for literal barebones survival.  His mother sold small bits of  food that very poor people could afford and with that money she bought enough flour for the family to survive one more day. 

There is corruption and brutality, but through it all, most of the villagers remain civil and try to work at whatever jobs they can.  I was amazed to read of the family’s first corn harvest after the famine, because even though people raided the cornfields, there was enough left to harvest.
Each morning we walked the road that bordered our field and found it littered with green leaves and dowe (ripe corn) gnawed to the pith, as if a battalion had feasted all night.

“Horrible stories of revenge soon began circulating in the trading center….

“Later that night, I asked my father how we should punish those who stole from us.

“’Should we kill them?’ I asked. ‘Perhaps call the police?’

“My father shook his head.

“’We’re not killing anyone,’ he said.  ‘Even if I call the police, those men would only starve to death in jail.  Everybody has the same hunger, son.  We must learn to forgive.’”

William Kamkwamba and his parents and grandparents

The story is compelling and engaging.  It’s a classic tale of triumph over adversity, but with a modern twist.  A respected teacher became interested in Kamkwamba, a radio station did a broadcast about his windmill, a blogger wrote about it, and the next thing Kamkwamba knew, he was giving a TED talk.  



It was touching to read about his first airplane ride and his first impressions of city life.  He’d never used a computer or had the luxury of an indoor bathroom.   The publicity brought in contributions and he was able to build a windmill to power a water pump.  His family could irrigate crops and would not starve again.  He also found himself the happy spokesperson for education in Africa.

His friend Erik Hersman, one of the first people to write about Kamkwamba on his blog Afrigadget, said, “Africans bend what little they have to their will every day.  Using creativity, they overcome Africa’s challenges.  Where the world sees trash, Africa recycles.  Where the world sees junk, Africa sees rebirth.”



This book is a great antidote to what we hear in the “news” about Africa.  It’s warm, human and full of hope.  It’s honest about the problems that plague the continent but very clear that Africans are working hard to solve them, and finding renewable resources in the process.  Kamkwamba graduated from Dartmouth College and is engaged in projects to help Malawi prosper. 

Kamkwamba is a gifted storyteller, though he had help with these books from writer Brian Mealer. In the acknowledgements, Mealer says, “First of all thanks to William for never giving up and for allowing me to help him share his uplifting story with the world.”  Mealer is the author of All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo.  He’s a former Associated Press Staff correspondent and his work has appeared in Harper’s and Esquire.  Mealer thanks his wife, too, in the acknowledgements, who, he says “shared my joy of finally coming home from Africa with some good news to tell.”
I suspect there may be lots of good news in Africa, and in the world, waiting to be told.  I hope that we readers seek it out.



You can keep up with William Kamkwamba on his website.  He has links to his original TED talk and the one he did a year later.  He writes that there will be a feature length documentary about his project soon.  

Keep you light shining.  Thanks for reading my blog.  Your comments are appreciated.