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Giving peace, trees a chance

One of Stefano Vitale's illustrations of war's effects. The text on the facing page reads 'War eats everything / In its path.' One of Stefano Vitale's illustrations of war's effects. The text on the facing page reads "War eats everything / In its path." ("Why War Is Never a Good Idea")
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Liz Rosenberg
April 20, 2008

Why War Is Never a Good Idea
Written by Alice Walker, Illustrated by Stefano Vitale
HarperCollins, 32 pp., ages 7 and up, $16.99

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai
By Claire A. Nivola
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 32 pp., ages 5-10, $16.95

How I Learned Geography
By Uri Shulevitz
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 32 pp., ages 6-10, $16.95

Oh, if only Alice Walker's newest book for young readers would create some literary waves. "Why War Is Never a Good Idea" is an important and beautiful book. Its power derives from the wellsprings of all great art for young people - honesty and simplicity. It opens with a deceptively playful phrase: "Though War speaks / Every language / It never knows / What to say / To frogs." War "has a mind of its own. / War never knows / Who / It is going / To hit." Stefano Vitale's illustrations take us through war and its devastations. His scenes of war are all the more powerful for their contrasts to a lush world at peace - green hilly landscapes filled with flowers and children; solid-looking donkeys "peacefully / Sniffing a pile / Of straw."

Walker handles her antiwar material carefully, respectful of its power. A bomb is "something dark / Big as / A car . . . Dropping." She delivers one difficult truth after another, in personifying, plainsong language: "Though War is Old / It has not / Become wise." She pulls no punches with her young readers, nor does she pretend that war is something separate from our existence. It may be too easy for children - American children perhaps especially - to believe war has nothing to do with them or their world.

"Why War Is Never a Good Idea" is long overdue. It stands alongside Mark Twain's famous "The War Prayer" as an American antiwar classic.

The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai changed the world one seed at a time. Claire A. Nivola's lovely "Planting the Trees of Kenya" offers Maathai's story to a younger, wider audience. When Maathai returned to Kenya after her college years in America, she discovered a landscape drastically altered. Most dramatically, she saw the trees of Kenya all but gone, rivers and streams "dried up," the people themselves malnourished. "The store food was expensive, and the little they could afford was not as good for them as what they had grown themselves, so that children, even grownups, were weaker and often sickly." Maathai remembered a lush landscape - figs, clear water, "glistening frogs' eggs," olive and flame trees. Her dream was for the people of Kenya to take destiny into their own hands and replenish "the land that fed them." As Nivola tells us, "She had a simple and big idea": planting trees all over Kenya. She taught women how to collect and nurture seeds, "as if they were babies." "Wangari was not one to give up, and she showed others how not to give up."

Just as Maathai taught that the land "needs color, it needs its cloth of green," Nivola's watercolors sparkle with green leaves, swaths of green grass; green hills and seedlings; green trousers, shirts, and kerchiefs. There is great lightness in the illustrations, a wash of pastels that suggests the vital elements: earth, water, and sky. No child, and surely no library, ought to be without "Planting the Trees of Kenya," especially in April, our own planting season.

Caldecott Medal winner Uri Shulevitz's newest picture book, "How I Learned Geography," is really a love story for the world. It belongs to the newly popular genre of memoir as picture book. Shulevitz handles his autobiographical material with grace and humor. The book begins with the young narrator fleeing the ravages of World War II for Kazakhstan, though it could be any war, in any time or place. "We lived in a small room with a couple we did not know. We slept on a dirt floor. I had no toys and no books. Worst of all: food was scarce."

One memorable day, the boy's father goes out to buy a bit of bread and comes home instead with a large map. The boy and his mother are furious at first, but despite himself the boy gradually falls in love with the wide world: "I became fascinated by the map and spent long hours looking at it, studying its every detail, and many days drawing it on any scrap of paper that chanced my way." "How I Learned Geography" is a portrait of the artist as a young boy. It tells how he learned about color and imagination - the vast world beyond himself.

Shulevitz always puts character at the forefront of his work. The expressions and gestures of his characters are believable, human-scale, and tender, full of dreaming and a touch of the untamed Eden. In the end, the boy narrator flies free above the desert landscape. "And so I spent enchanted hours far, far from our hunger and misery. I forgave my father. He was right, after all."

Liz Rosenberg reviews children's books monthly for the Globe.

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