Home > Mock Caldecott 2011 > Mama Miti written by Donna Jo Napoli and illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Mama Miti written by Donna Jo Napoli and illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Publication Date: January 5, 2010
Reviewed For: Ages 4-8

Journal Review / Summary
Luminous illustrations are the highlight of this third recent picture-book biography of Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental activist who received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. In brief, poetic lines that have a folktale tone, Napoli describes how “wise Wangari” helped Kenyan village women solve problems from hunger to dirty water with the same solution: “Plant a tree.” Eventually, Maathai’s Green Belt movement became a worldwide mission. Jeanette Winter’s Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa and Claire A. Nivola’s Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai (both 2008) integrate more background context, and readers encountering Maathai’s story for the first time here will need to start with the appended short biography in order to understand the story’s generalized references. Most noteworthy is Nelson’s vibrant collage artwork, which features soaring portraits and lush landscapes in oil paint and printed fabrics. An author’s note about sources and a glossary of Kikuyu and Swahili words used throughout the text close this moving tribute, which will partner well with Winter’s and Nivola’s titles. Grades K-3. – Booklist

Illustration Medium:
“The artwork is rendered with oil paints and printed fabrics on gessoed board. I chose to use these materials because African culture is rich with textiles and color, and I felt it essential that the artwork reflect an aesthetic of both East Africa and my own work.  It was a bit of a challenge telling this story using mostly fabric and so little paint, but rewarding nonetheless.  I hope I’ve been able to capture the spirit and culture of Kenya, Wangari Maathai, and the Green Belt Movement.” – Kadir Nelson
Gesso is a vellum-like gluey covering that completely seals the surface and prepares the panel to accept paint.

Initial Thoughts:
I read Claire Nivola’s Planting the Trees of Kenya: the Story of Wangari Maathai because of Booklist’s suggestion.

Execution in the artistic technique employed:
I don’t know much about art, but I’m very impressed. This looks to me like high-quality stuff.

Appropriateness of style of illustration to story, theme, and concept:
Nelson chose to use fabric and oil paints to reflect the textiles and color prevalent in African culture. He accurately and stunningly captures the transformation of the dry, treeless land to Mama Miti’s tree filled African paradise. The stray fibers of cloth, when they do appear, seem to have purpose, connecting one piece of cloth to another. The colors are vibrant and the patterns appropriate to the objects being represented by the fabric.

Delineation/interpretation of a plot through illustration:
The plot goes along with the growth of the setting.

Delineation/interpretation of a theme or concept through illustration:
The Kenyan phrase Thayu nyumba (peace, my people) interspersed with the story are somewhat out of place but illustrate the peaceful nature of Wangari and her mission – but the placement and different font, though I suppose are meant to make it seem like a refrain, seem out of place to me. At the end, I would have liked to see the Kenyan phrase for “plant a tree” as well as “peace, my people” to better bring those two themes together along with the Kenyan words.

Delineation of characters through illustration:
Characters’ bodies are painted and very dark – their facial expressions are almost too dark to make out. I like the movement of the tadpoles throughout the story – on the first page with Wangari as a child, then on her dress as an adult, and finally at the end in the pond created by the tree she said to plant in her own village. The second to last double spread cuts a few people in half in the gutter, and ending the story with an illustration of Mama Miti was a strong move, especially since she was the first character to be seen and was not seen in illustration since.

Delineation of setting through illustration:
Settings and clothes are painted – very bright colors with patterns. The textures of the cloth seem much more evident in a few of the backgrounds.  I really like the way that she did the full-grown trees and foliage as well as the fields on the farms.

Delineation of mood through illustration:
Mama Miti’s message of hope through peace and growth is well-shown throughout the illustrations with her warm colors. The illustrations vary between portraits, landscapes, and one patchwork and transition very well.

Delineation of information through illustration:
The Booklist review was right; the information is a little bit sparse if you don’t already know about Wangari Maathai, but the afterword and glossary are very informative.

Additional Things I Liked:
I really enjoy the opening spread, with the tree and crass and hilltop made of cloth.  I loved the way Nelson used the cloth in all of the illustrations, especially in the plants and sky.

Concluding Caldecott Thoughts:
Definitely.

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