New Voice: Jen Cullerton Johnson on Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace

Jen Cullerton Johnson is the first-time author of Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace, illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler (Lee & Low, 2010). From the promotional copy:

As a young girl in Kenya, Wangari was taught to respect nature. She grew up loving the land, plants, and animals that surrounded her—from the giant mugumo trees her people, the Kikuyu, revered to the tiny tadpoles that swam in the river.

Although most Kenyan girls were not educated, Wangari, curious and hardworking, was allowed to go to school. There, her mind sprouted like a seed. She excelled at science and went on to study in the United States.

After returning home, Wangari blazed a trail across Kenya, using her knowledge and compassion to promote the rights of her countrywomen and to help save the land, one tree at a time.

Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace brings to life the empowering story of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman, and environmentalist, to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Engaging narrative and vibrant images paint a robust portrait of this inspiring champion of the land and of women’s rights.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

When I stared the research for Seeds of Change there were only a few academic journals about Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. I drew heavily on Wangari’s biography, Unbowed (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

What drew me to Wangari was how she spoke to so many different kinds of people from poor women to presidents. Her words inspired me to action.

When I wrote the book, I wanted readers to “hear Wangari.” I decided I would take every opportunity to use Wangari’s own words, so when the book is read, it feels as if Wangari Maathai is the room since the words came from her.

Also Wangari Marathi’s life had many challenges. She was thrown in jail for planting trees. My editor, Jennifer Fox at Lee & Low, never hesitated, never doubted that telling the truth was important to telling all of Wangari’s story.

There is a line in the books that says, “One day while she was out planting a tree, some wealthy businessmen paid corrupt police officers to arrest Wangari.”

This is a tricky line with big implications.

But Lee & Low did not shy away from the truth. Like the life of Wangari Maathai, they stood firm, and I will always be grateful to them for their deep respect for story and truth telling.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Wangari’s life inspires me. She took two issues, poverty and the environment, and came up with a solution to both of them. She taught women to plant trees, and in doing so, the women learned a skill and trees grew green again in Kenya.

When Seeds of Change came out, I wanted to embrace Wangari’s idea of putting ideas into practice. Whenever I go on a school visit, do a reading or presentation, I make sure that after Seeds of Change is read, the students or the audience has a chance to make a change.

Sometimes we plants trees, other times seeds, but each time there is a connection to reading and doing. People need to dig in the dirt, roll a seed between their fingers, touch the leaves of different plants so that they know that Wangari’s experience of embracing nature and caring for the environment can also be part of their own experience.

As the old saying goes: it is not knowledge that is power but how to apply the knowledge that makes lasting change.

One of our jobs as writers is to inspire readers with our words, but sometimes inspiration fades or is forgotten, therefore, our words must also move readers to action, be it to plant seed or be nicer to their neighbor.

I think environmental books for children are doing just that–inspiring and moving readers to action. I am very grateful Seeds of Change is part of the genre.

I hope new writers push ahead and continue to explore how our natural world and our human place in it is both one of many, and many for the good of all.

Cynsational Notes

Jen Cullerton Johnson is a writer, an educator, and an environmentalist with masters degrees in nonfiction writing and curriculum development. She has taught in countries all over the world and now teaches at an inner-city elementary school in Chicago, where she also conducts writing workshops. She is inspired by Wangari Maathai’s dedication to women and the environment. Johnson can be found online at Seeds of Change is her first picture book.

Biography and the Environment with Jen Cullerton Johnson and Sonia Lynn Sadler Author and illustrator of Seeds of Change from Lee & Low. Peek: “What moves me the most about Wangari’s story is her message of harabee, which means “let’s work together.” We can solve problems if we work together.”