One of Send a Cow's top picks for this year's Read to Feed is ‘One Plastic Bag’ by American author, Miranda Paul. Set in the Gambia, One Plastic Bag is an inspirational picture book which tells the true story of how five women creatively dealt with their village’s plastic waste problem. This book is far from the poverty-stricken, dependent stereotype of Africa. The women work together to pursue a recycled plastic purse project which brings them economic prosperity. 

The author, Miranda Paul, stresses that there is an absence of positive stories of Africa in what she describes as a much larger ‘‘book famine’’ made up of ‘‘a lack of books or a lack of books that accurately reflect the diversity in our world.'' Here Miranda explains the importance of having a diverse diet of books...

''In my first days teaching in the Gambia, West Africa, I knew there was a problem. The rural school had a library—a couple of shelves with dusty, tattered books—but students were not allowed to check anything out. What’s more, not all of my 50+ students per class had the required texts. On top of that, the assigned reading (including Shakespeare) was overwhelmingly white and/or foreign. How was I to teach literary analysis and foster a love of reading without solid resources?

After muddling through the fall trimester, I headed back home to the US where I’d come to realize there was a book famine here, too. Stories in which the protagonist mirrored my diverse students’ experiences were not always easy to find—or were tucked away in a “multicultural” section or treated as extracurricular and niche oddities for rare holidays. I was expected to teach mostly British literature, stories with all-male casts (often set in boarding schools), and anything historical or perceived as a “classic”.  These stories, while brilliant and beloved, collectively did not showcase an accurate representation of American or world literature. How could I blame my students for not caring about books and characters they couldn’t relate to?

Feeling inspired

In 2009, I came across Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story. It quickly became required viewing for my classes at the time. I also began freelancing and writing for children, and had kids of my own, which opened my eyes to how this problem continued to go unchallenged and unsolved. (Finding fun, gift-worthy picture books that matched my interracial family took great effort, for example.)

The problem then became an opportunity for personal growth as well as social change. I educated myself on the issues, including following statistics about the lack of diversity in children’s books and publishing from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and Lee and Low. Listening to diverse voices helped me understand more deeply how a lack of relevant “mirror” books led to my students’ hunger for self-worth, which ultimately was impacting their future progress.

A book famine

Book famine—whether defined as a lack of books or a lack of books that accurately reflect the diversity in our world—is very real. It is why my colleagues in the industry have co-led a movement (now a non-profit organization) called We Need Diverse Books. Having books that mirror contemporary kids’ experiences, as well as those that give us an accurate window into the lives of others is critical to building empathy.

The book One Plastic Bag is the first narrative nonfiction picture book published in the U.S. (possibly the world) about a real female Gambian hero. Such representation is not a task we took lightly when creating the book, and we collaborated closely with the women of Njau, Gambia. Copies of the book now circulate in Njau and around the world, especially in schools and libraries (where Gambian-American and Muslim children have access to it, among others).

A healthy diet

We need to be ready to embrace diverse stories, and it is vital that we get authentic, contemporary African stories into the hands of young readers and learners—no matter where they live. Books can change, save, or shape lives in similar ways that access to basic needs does, perhaps even more so in situations where a child’s access to education is limited. If reading feeds minds and souls, let’s all make sure to consume a well-balanced, diverse diet of books—it’s how we’ll become a healthier global society.''

This March, Send a Cow's Read to Feed initiative has been celebrating some of the wonderful and diverse stories Africa has to offer, by creating an African inspired reading list to spark children's interest. To find out more about Read to Feed, go to sendacow.org/read-to-feed

To find out more about Miranda Paul, Isatou Ceesay and the women of Njau, or to purchase One Plastic Bag, go to oneplasticbag.com