The story of William Kamkwamba, who at age 14 built a windmill powerful enough to run lights and water pumps for his poor village in Malawi out of a bicycle generator and other scraps, is well known — and yet it still continues to amaze. Forced to quit school because of a drought that caused his family’s crops to fail, Kamkwamba taught himself the principles of electric generation using only some English-language library books and a translating dictionary. And equally amazing is the fact that this boy, who had never seen a computer, was discovered by journalists and invited to speak at a TED conference, which led to world-wide recognition of his accomplishments and goals.
Happily, supporters helped Kamkwamba return to school, and he is currently a student at Dartmouth College. Kamkwamba has told his story in the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope with co-author Bryan Mealer. Now the authors have turned that book into a picture book for kids. The children’s version of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind features illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon that perfectly balance this inspiring story and bring it to life.
Though told in simple language, the story is clear and engrossing. While I have not yet read the adult version, to me one of the authors’ greatest achievements is the way they managed to re-tell the story in a way young readers can understand and process without feeling overwhelmed. The language, and the feeling, is poetic, a true storyteller’s voice.
Zunon’s illustrations use a combination of painting and collage in a natural and yet colorful palette of colors that evoke the African landscape. On the page that reads,
He closed his eyes and saw
a windmill outside his home
pulling electricity from the breeze
and bringing light to the dark valley.
I particularly liked the way she portrays the young boy’s face realistically, with a textured, almost sculpted brushstroke. In contrast, the windmill he envisions is shown flat and idealized — three perfect white blades intertwined with feathery gusts of wind. Throughout the book, the pictures take your breath away.
But this is not just a story of ingenuity and survival. There is also an environmental message: in parts of the world, green technology can provide what fossil fuels simply cannot. The authors’ note at the end fills in some of the details of the story, including the solar-powered pump that was installed with the donations which came in to the village thanks to the publicity surrounding Kamkwamba’s efforts. Without the windmills and solar collectors, the village would not have experienced the turn-around which it has since enjoyed.
Just as inspiring was the successful campaign by the Pearson Foundation to donate books to the children of Malawi for each book read on their site We Give Books. Over 10,000 books were read and donated to one of the schools and libraries being built to support early childhood development through the Moving Windmills Project, a nonprofit initiative inspired by Kamkwamba’s work. The video below, from the We Give Books website, features interviews with Kamkwamba’s family in Malawi and illustrations from the book. It shows the potential of green energy to change a country, the value of determination, and the power of books. What a wonderful message to share with any child!
Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this book for review purposes.