Reviewed by Deborah Menkart
The collage illustrations in The Mangrove Tree are stunning—each page invites the reader to take in the creativity and details created through the multicolored, textured cloth.
The story itself is an important one, describing a community that was once ecologically devastated and poverty-stricken in Eritrea and now enjoys a sustainable ecosystem for people, animals, and the land. Planting mangrove trees in the salt water turned arid land into a virtual rain forest.
Sadly, the book repeats the familiar stereotype of someone from outside of Africa who comes to save the African people who without this foreigner would starve.
This is unfortunate, because the story could have been told differently. It is likely the case that the scientist featured in the book, Dr. Gordon Sato, did make a major contribution with the mangrove tree planting in salt water, but even he would not be likely to claim that he worked alone. Very few scientists do. Online articles about the mangrove phenomenon describe a team effort and they cite the war with Ethiopia as the cause of the community’s poverty – it was not a “natural” condition.
The book credits Sato with all the thinking – the Eritreans simply plant and harvest. Sato himself has an interesting story. He was held in a Japanese-American internment (concentration) camp where he began his exploration of growing crops in arid soil. This experience led him to name the mangrove project Manzanar, showing that there is always hope in the face of injustice.
But it is an injustice to his life’s work and the work of the Eritrean people to rob them of history, agency, and intellect in this vital sustainability project.
Read more reviews of books about Africa at Africa Access Review.
The Mangrove Tree by Cindy Trumbore, Susan L. Roth
Published by Lee & Low Books on 2011
Genres: Africa, Biography and Autobiography, Environment, Science
Reading Level: Grades 1-2
Review Source: Africa Access
SYNOPSIS: For a long time, the people of Hargigo, a village in the tiny African country of Eritrea, were living without enough food for themselves and their animals. Then along came a scientist, Dr Gordon Sato, who helped to change their lives for the better. And it all started by planting some special mangrove trees. This fascinating story of environmental innovation is a celebration of creativity, hard work and the ability of one man to make a positive difference in the lives of many.