Author Interview with Jen Cullerton Johnson

Jen Cullerton Johnson’s wonderful book, Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace, pushes picture book boundaries to share the life of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. It was illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler and published by Lee & Low Books in 2010.

It makes sense that a book about someone who rewrote so many of “the rules” should be told through an innovative form…  but easier said than done in a picture book.

In addition to the lovely qualities of this book – sensory details, energetic illustrations, strong themes – here are some of the boundary-pushing reasons why I’m so excited about this book:

1) The story arc moves beyond the “try once, try again, try a final time and succeed” paradigm that is common in picture books. While this form is highly effective for certain stories, it would only smooth over the lived life of an activist like Maathai. Johnson embraces the complexity of Maathai’s story by including a number of ups and downs, charting the ebb and flow of Maathai’s work to describe a realistic path for a movement leader.

2) Seeds of Change doesn’t shy away from tough topics. We even learn about how Maathai ended up in jail when greedy businessmen and corrupt police officers conspired against her.

3) Here’s a picture book where the protagonist shares a power analysis! After organizing and founding the Green Belt Movement (leading to the planting of over 30 million trees!), then facing jail because she disrupted the existing power structure, we get this:

Wangari realized that the people who had put her in jail didn’t like the changes in the land or in the women. The people in charge of big companies wanted to keep the land for themselves, and the government was frightened of too many advances made by women. If she wanted to help save her country and countrywomen, Wangari would have to go out into the world to spread her message. She would have to leave her home once more.

This to me is the heart of the book’s genius. It doesn’t back away from what made Wangari Maathai who she was, the times she lived through, and how she took a stand.

Johnson is so successful at pulling all of this off, so I asked her some questions. In addition to being a writer, Johnson is an environmental educator and a founder of the website

Author Interview with Jen Cullerton Johnson:

What drew you to Wangari Maathai’s story?

Environmental problems are complex, challenging, and messy. Solving environmental problems involve the capacity to balance social justice and deep ecology, think out of the box and have compassion for multiple points of view. Wangari Maathai’s work as an environmentalist and women’s rights champion inspired me to think differently and more openly about the world and how world problems are solved. Wangari took two complex issues, women and the environment, and was able to come to a solution: teach women to plant trees and by doing so, women will become financially independent and deforested areas will be reforested. Amazing, right?

On the same level, I wanted my students to know that when you speak truth to power, when you use your voice and not cower, there is possibility for change not only in yourself but in others and in the landscape around you.

So often in children’s picture books there’s a “try once, try twice, try a final time and succeed” structure. In your story you include an unsettling 4th obstacle after she has had some success. How did you decide to use this structure? Did you have any models for it in other books?

This is an interesting question. I structured the book to reflect points that illuminate important passages in Wangari’s life. I did not intend for it to be a three times then one succeeds. In fact, looking at Wangari’s life there seems to be many moments when her failures bring about success and sometimes her success proves failure.

However, I am very proud of being published by Lee & Low for their determination to tell aspects of Wangari’s life story, including those that some might not find suitable for a picture book. I refer to when greedy business men paid corrupt police officers to arrest Wangari for the changes she brought not only to women’s rights and the environment but to a whole social movement of change for Kenya.

I firmly believe that inviting children into conversations about deep issues in our society, in this case, women’s rights and the environment, will allow them the opportunity to reflect on what they think and share their ideas. Conversation creates community, and in this moment, our children are making their way in a very global community.

So often contemporary children’s book are far below 1,000 words, yet this one is 1,500 words. At what point did you expand the text, and how did that impact the story you were able to tell?

Wangari was a powerful speaker. I wanted children to hear her voice, and not an echo of it. So most of the dialogue in the book comes from Wangari’s memoir Unbowed as well as other academic sources.

Seeds of Change is a unique book. It is a slush pile wonder. I wrote it and sent the manuscript to two publishers who both wanted it. Lee & Low was the first who wrote me back within three weeks. Jennifer Fox was the editor on the book. She is an amazing and dynamic woman. With her guidance, I brought the word count from 750 to 1500. I think the extra word length added more dialogue and an author’s note.

You are also a founder of the website Can you tell me about it?

Green Literacy addresses how to teach a critical perspective concerning humanity’s impact on the environment using children’s literature, especially picture and middle grade books and visual media, whose themes relate to the environment and show how teachers can use them to spark critical dialogues.

Through this kind of exploration young people can begin to develop their own ideas and voice with weighty issues surrounding our planet. Giving young people the opportunity to discuss environmental issues by way of the safe and familiar format of a picture or middle grade book, or multimedia will help them value their contact with nature and the principles derived from scientific environmental education.

Young people who are able to make a connection to environmental themes through Green Literacy, with both fiction and non-fiction picture books and other media at a young age, can grow into ‘older’ nonfiction— like newspaper and magazine articles, news broadcasts, graphs and charts in environmental reports. Thought provoking multimedia such as videos and film clips lend themselves to a shared experience in a similar way as picture or middle grade books.

Thank you Jen!