Monday, February 7, 2011

Book Giveaway and Green Guest of the Month: Jen Cullerton Johnson, Planting the Seeds of Change

Recently, I had the honor to interview Chicago-area author, educator, and environmentalist, Jen Cullerton Johnson. Jen’s debut picture book biography, Seeds Of Change: Planting the Path to Peace, brings to life the story of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

**At the end of this interview read how to enter to win a signed copy of Jen's new book. **

What inspired you to write “Seeds of Change?”

The life of Wangari Maathai inspires me. It still blows me away. I admire how she took two very important issues-- women's rights and the environment-- and found a solution through the Green Belts, a movement of women environmentalist who planted 30 millions trees in Kenya.

Today there are so many challenges to issues that sometimes we become overwhelmed and we give up. With Wangari, she really looked toward her community of young mothers to join in and help her. Wangari's story tells that although one person may have an idea, it is a community that bring the idea to fruition.

“Seeds of Change” recently won the 2011 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award for the illustrations by Sonia Lynn Sadler. How do you feel about this honor?

Sonia Lynn Sadler is a wonderful illustrator. Her work is bold and dramatic, engaging and hopeful. Every time I have a school visit or do a book reading, I always stop on the second to last page. Sonia Lynn Sanders placed important figures like Martin Luther King Jr and Barrack Obama coming out of Wangari's hand. This April, I will see some of Sonia's art up close when I attend the Newton Marasco Foundation that recently gave Seeds of Change an Honor.

You weave wonderful tree imagery into your story of Wangari Maathai- “Her mind was like a tree woven in rich soil, ready to grow.” “Like a sturdy tree against a mighty wind, her faith kept her strong.” I sense you have a strong connection to trees yourself. Do you have a favorite tree? What role do trees play in your life?

I think this is the loveliest question ever asked of me. Yes, I do have a favorite tree. I grew up in a very small town called Dune Acres. It is on the shores of Lake Michigan. The name of my street is Linden Lane. Linden trees are wonderful trees. They blossom with fruits and flowers which attract bees and chipmonks, mice, squirrels. Rabbits and voles eat the bark. I also like them for their leaves and sturdy trunk. I love them as I love all the trees around Lake Michigan like the Oak, Pine, Birch, and the Maple.

You’ve said that you admire Wangari Maathai because she is a “real life person doing something for the environment.” How has writing her story inspired you do things in your own life to help the environment?

Yeah. In a lot of ways I feel like I am an accidental environmentalist. Since I wrote the book and now do a lot of speaking on the connection between picture books and nature, I have adapted to new ideas like starting where I am at and reducing what I buy. A couple years ago, my son started a recycling program in our house. We have added a compost. Little by little we are moving in the right direction.

You’re a big advocate of “green literacy.” Can you explain what this is and what you are doing to support it?

Green Literacy is very similar to eco-literacy. Eco-literacy is a term coined by Michael K. Stone and it means there are certain bodies of knowledge a person must know in order to function as a eco-literate person.

Green Literacy takes into account eco-literacy but it uses literacy based techniques to talk about environmental issues. In other words, Green Literacy uses elements of story to spark conversations about the environment. Often times people want to make changes without changing their minds. Green Literacy allows students the opportunity to reflect, consider and dialogue through the use of literature so that when they do act, their action has meaning and is empowering.

What are some of your favorite “green reads?”

Well from the looks of your blog, I admire our local writers like Tim Magner and Pamela Todd. Both have wonderful books. I am re-reading Rachel Carson. Amazing women. I have a list of 100 + green reads if any reader would like it, please email me and I will be more than happy to send it.

Waangari Maathai said “protecting the environment is not just a pleasure, but also a duty.” How do you spread this message to your readers and students?

For me it is very important that students have the opportunity to think, consider and reflect on their environment before they take actions. Too many times people jump at change and the change is not long lasting. Once a child understands, action is meaningful and change is effective.

Learn more about Seeds Of Change and Jen's efforts to spread green literacy at her website:

Or better yet, learn from Jen in person! Jen will be teaching a Nature Writing Workshop at the Chicago Newberry Library, February 19-April 16th, 2011. (Sign up by February 12th.) More information at:

Enter to win an autographed copy of Seeds of Change by following these contest rules:

1. You must post a comment to today's blog post telling why you'd like to win a copy of Seeds of Change. Please mention if you are a teacher. Teacher's will be entered in an additional drawing to win a free SKYPE author's visit from Jen Cullerton Johnson AND a signed classroom copy of her book.

2. You must include contact information in your comment. If you are not a blogger, or your email address is not accessible from your online profile, you must provide a valid email address in your comment. If I don't have your email address, I won't be able to contact you. Note: THE LITTLE GREEN PEN cannot prevent spammers from accessing email addresses posted within comments, so please disguise your address by spelling out portions, such as the [at] and [dot].

3. You must post your comment by 11 pm (CST) Tuesdau, February 22, 2011. (The winner will be chosen at randon and announced on Wednesday, February 23th.) Note: Winners automatically grant me permission to post their names on the LITTLE GREEN PEN website.

4. You must have a mailing address in the United States.


  1. Wow, wonderful interview! I have never heard of "green reads". Mind provoking, for sure!

    I would love to receive a copy of this book. I truly believe that life here on earth is hard work. It takes values, discipline, energy, honesty and going against the norm to fully live out what we believe in. Community is the key to many of these things. When we work together, we can accomplish much. Sharing knowledge will spur us on towards more hard work! Kind of like as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another! This "green read" sure sounds like it would spur me on!

    Thanks for putting this together, Michelle. I enjoyed it with my tea this afternoon!

    Heidi Polcaster

  2. To help children think and reflect about their environment before taking action is so right on! This book is a great way to do that! This interview has inspired me to go home tonight and talk with my children about this!

  3. Raising my daughter in a society that reconsiders gas mileage only when the price of gas skyrockets is challenging for me. I would love to read her the story of Waangari Maathai because it sounds like one that might help her appreciate the 'weight of a snowflake'.

  4. Today's Children need to read books like Seeds of Change to appreciate and understand nature, and find out how nature/environment impacts their everyday life. I would love to read the story of Wangari Maathai to spread the words of environmental awareness.

  5. Great interview. A couple of things made me stop and think. I think I will shop more conciously - reducing my intake of goods. The other thing was the idea that Wangari Maathai had. Yes, her community helped bring it to "fruition", but everything, EVERYTHING starts first with an idea. Thanks for giving me something to think about. Shareen

  6. This interview really had me thinking. I am a teacher in an urban area and many of the students that I teach will spend their entire life on the same city block. They will not experience a forest or even be able to understand what open space looks like. I try to expose them to these ideas, and I think this book would give me some great teachable moments. I want my students to know that it is a big world out there and that they too can help protect it.


  7. My Chicago grandgirl loves searching for nature every day as she walks to catch the school bus. She reports back to me sharing sightings of the creatures and plants she has recognized or needs to identify. She even grew a sunflower seed in her high-rise apartment window last summer. She will truly benefit from Seeds Of Change.

  8. My favorite books to read are those that are about people who do something amazing and profound with their lives, without really intending to. Wangari Maathai sounds like one of those people, and I can't wait to read her life story.

    p.s., your tree question was a nice one, and I enjoyed her answer!

  9. What a wonderful interview. Seeds of change sounds like a fabulous book on many levels. "Green reads" are new to me and I love the concept. It is one thing to talk to my daughters about the environment, inspiring people and great ideas but having resources such as a book like Seeds of Change can make those messages so much more powerful. Thanks for bringing such beautiful art into the world!

    Michelle--LOVE your blog!!! Thanks so much for mentioning it to me today. Can't wait to check it all out. Michelle Reinhardt mmreinhardt at me dot com

  10. I enjoyed reading this interesting interview. I had never heard about Wangari Maathai and so am interested in learning some more about her. I would love to give this book to my children's school library. It sounds like a great way to inspire kids to make a difference.

    thescribe at yahoo dot com

  11. I was lucky enough to hear Jen speak to a writers' group I belong to and some children we were hosting as part of a writing contest. This is a beautiful book that I would love to have in my daughter's library! :)

    margodll (at)