One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia
By Miranda Paul, Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Millbrook Press, 2015
In One Plastic Bag, Miranda Paul relays the story of a very creative local solution, by Isatou Ceesay and her fellow “recycling women” in Njau, Gambia, to the very global problem of plastic trash. The text is lovely, rooted in setting, the narrative driven by Ceesay’s commitment to improve her community. Elizabeth Zunon’s fabulous artwork incorporates vibrant fabric patterns and plastic bags.
I asked Miranda some questions in advance of the book’s release in February.
What qualities make a compelling story about activism for young children?
I think any story, about activism or not, has to have an aspect, emotion, or experience which is relatable to a child. In One Plastic Bag, for example, children will relate to the experiences of losing a pet or animal, the feeling of being “too small,” having very creative or imaginative ideas and worrying about other people laughing at them. I also think that children have a beautiful and natural intuition to do what is right, so including a sense of justice or hope will help engage them with the main character or subject matter. I also think it’s important that the author have a vested interest and experience in the topic. Passion is difficult to fake. (And so is research.)
True stories about activism are complicated. In telling these stories to children—particularly in picture book form—writers must make decisions about what gets left out. I’m curious to hear about your process in crafting this narrative. Were there parts of the story that you had to omit?
There are so many parts of Isatou’s story that had to be omitted—some for space (picture books for the young are short!) and some for appropriateness or relevance. For example, Isatou lost her father when she was young and was forced to become a school dropout. Isatou’s mother isn’t in the book, primarily omitted for privacy reasons. Also, when people mock and laugh at the women, there was actually an incident where Isatou was physically assaulted by someone who didn’t like what she was doing. So, yes, there were many things omitted because they either distracted from the story, which is geared for 5-9 year-olds, or because they brought in situations that would need further (and lengthy) context information. When Isatou Ceesay comes to the U.S. this spring for the book tour, she’ll share (with adult groups) a little more of the story in a personal way through a couple of keynote speeches.
Unlike so many biographical books, One Plastic Bag shares the actions of an individual who is alive today. How were Isatou Ceesay and other women in the community involved in the development of the book? How do you think they will use this book?
The women were gracious to let me interview so many of them. They opened up to me. At first, I was working on informative articles for online sites and fair trade advocacy. Later, I decided to write a picture book. I read the draft to Isatou at various stages, and about three months before I sent the submission that would lead to the sale, Isatou translated it verbally into Wolof and read it to some of the women in Njau. My hope is that once foreign rights are taken care of, the women and organizations that support them can use this book for awareness and exposure. I’m also hoping that other fair trade cooperatives and advocates will see this book as an example of how telling stories can be a step toward activism.
You’ve compiled a number of online resources for teachers. How can educators use One Plastic Bag in the classroom?
Reading/writing teachers can use the book for Common Core lessons on repetition, figurative language, story arc, tense, Point of View, and more. Social Studies teachers can incorporate it into lessons on cultures, environment/climate, agriculture, and geography. Science teachers can use the plastic bag fact sheets to examine the science behind plastic bags, what’s biodegradable, and other environmental issues related to plastic trash. Math teachers can do currency conversions or equations related to buying/selling the purses in dalasi. Art teachers can connect with Elizabeth Zunon’s art, or explore making a plastic-bag jumprope craft – the instructions are on the Lerner website and on the Teacher Resources page. (Can you tell I’m a former teacher??)
One thing I want to highlight for teachers is the opportunity for students to enter our Earth Day 2015 Recycling Idea contest. Basically, kids will come up with a creative idea to recycle or repurpose an item that they’d otherwise discard, and we’ll choose winners or highlight many of them on the site. More info coming in February at OnePlasticBag.com!
What are some of your favorite picture books that encourage kids to make change?
Melissa Stewart’s A Place for Butterflies inspired my daughter to make a butterfly garden in our front yard, which is thriving years later. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (illus. Elizabeth Zunon) has inspired my son to tinker with his ideas. For older kids, Plastic, Ahoy! by Patricia Newman puts into perspective how urgent and necessary it is that we adopt a get-to-work mindset on environmental issues.
You are involved in We Need Diverse Books. How can people who love to read and write picture books support this important campaign?
Buy diverse books, check out diverse books from the library (or request them), review them, recommend them. Writers who are in the majority can mentor or encourage diverse writers and actively work to diversify their writing groups, faculty for writing conferences and events, and create atmospheres that are inviting to people of non-majority experiences. If people are struggling to find diverse books, or books by diverse authors (which is just as important!), the WNDB site has a Resources tab with lists.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If any of your readers live in DC, MD, VA, NY, CT, PA, IL, WI, MN, and possibly CO, those are the planned states for Isatou Ceesay’s U.S. Visit Tour and it would be an extraordinary opportunity for activists and children’s book lovers to hear her speak. The event calendar at MirandaPaul.com is being updated each week with new event dates/times, so continue to check back or sign up for email updates. I’m so thrilled for her to come, because after working so hard for so long, this trip for Isatou will about getting a little of the recognition she deserves and continuing her work on another level.
Thank you, Miranda!