My grandmothers were born a thousand miles apart but were united by the same values, some of which were doubtless fostered by the necessities of the Second World War. One behaviour in particular plays on my mind more and more: my grandmas were obsessed with thriftiness and recycling in a way that seemed quite alien to me at the time and - I am ashamed to say - attracted my derision as a child. Growing up in a more disposable society, I thought it odd to compost peelings and tea leaves; pedantic to wash out and save foil containers and downright stingy to meticulously fold up discarded wrapping paper in order to ‘re-gift’ it to me the following birthday. In recent years, I have been forced to re-evaluate my stance as I have been asked to sort more and more of my household rubbish and embrace the mantra of ‘reduce, re-use, and recycle’. In recent months, I have been forced to admit that I could supply a local supermarket with the carrier bags multiplying under my stairs. Most heart breaking of all, was the realisation that my own carelessness with plastic had unwittingly contributed to the shocking scenes I witnessed on David Attenborough’s final episode of Blue Planet.
Can we undo the negligence of a generation and save our precious planet? Many of us have now embarked on a war on plastic but is it too little, too late? Recently, I came across a book that really spoke to me: One Plastic Bag, written by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. It tells the true story of Isatou Ceesay and the recycling women of the Gambia, and this beautiful narrative is truly an inspiration for everyone. Simply put, we learn of how a community swapped paper bags for the convenience of more robust plastic versions. However, unlike their predecessors, these bags did not decompose and soon the landscape became swamped with unsightly heaps of discarded plastic. What followed was disease, smell and sickness of livestock. How could such damage be addressed, let alone reversed? One day, Isatou hit upon an idea, and with the help of her fellow villagers, she was able to bring this idea to life. Now, the women of Njau collect, wash and cut up the bags. They then crochet them into new bags and purses and sell them at market. They have tackled the problem in their village in a practical and effective way and have really made a difference to their community. Isatou herself has gone on to win awards for her work and now works as a trainer for the environment for the US Peace Corps.
The recent 5p charge on carrier bags is just one prompt to adults to change our habits and consider the implications of our throwaway tendencies. However, I think that children across the country are quite perceptive when it comes to the issue of plastic, and recently I have had lots of fascinating conversations with pupils about what else could be done. This book would provide a fabulous launch for a unit of work based on this theme.
I am in no doubt that the appeal of this picture book extends beyond the pressing theme of eliminating excess plastic. The lyrical text will engage the children and they will want to join in with the repeated refrain First one, then two, then ten… This refrain first mirrors my own burgeoning supply of plastic carrier bags and then comes to symbolise the hope and growth of the project. The book lends itself perfectly to performance reading, dramatic enactment, discussion, debate and further reading.
Elizabeth Zunon’s illustrations exude warm colour and vibrant patterns. The collage effect of her artwork, gives the pictures a layered, textured quality which I found charming. Following reading, children could perhaps create their own artwork design in Elizabeth’s style, using fragments of bags and patterned papers. Furthermore, they could make their own creative suggestions for repurposing plastic items such as by cutting down milk bottles to use as PVA glue pots in school or to create mini greenhouses for plants. This could lead to a competition or even an exhibition of ‘Make do and mend’ items. It could also extend to the repurposing of other materials and objects. Writing to accompany this work could range from labels and captions to information and explanation cards, as well as invitations to the event. Children could also create posters to accompany the designs and persuade people to adopt the same approach.
Below are some further suggestions for written activities that could spawn from this delightful tale of regeneration, that would support children’s composition skills and help them to be aware of their readers. Within these suggestions, there are plenty of opportunities to develop oral language skills through discussion, presenting and performing.
After retelling this story, children could innovate upon the theme to create their own tale of a group of people who tackle the plastic bag problem. Alternatively, they could create diary entries from the point of view of Isatou, focusing on her emotions and reactions throughout the story.
Children could turn the narrative into a poem, perhaps even incorporating the refrain of ‘one, then two then ten’. They could focus on the descriptive language that the writer uses to set the scene such as: ‘Warm scents of burning wood and bubbling peanut stew drift past’. They could incorporate some of the Wolof language that is woven into the story: ‘Naka ligey be? (How is the work?) Ndanka, Ndanka. (Slow, slow) to create their own refrain.
Children could write a persuasive letter to the government or local council, asking them to do more about reducing the amount of plastic in circulation. Recent changes brought about by public pressure have included the banning of plastic straws in some establishments and the promise of plastic free tea bags by major tea brands (who knew the humble tea bag was so guiltily complicit in the plastic problem?) Alternatively, pupils could compose a persuasive speech encouraging peers to review their relationship with plastic and adopt alternative approaches. Older children could write a discursive piece in which they present the problems caused by plastic and explore some of the ways that we could creatively reuse the plastic we already have in circulation.
Younger children could write a set of instructions detailing how the women created their purses and bags. Perhaps they could include a little introduction such as ‘Do you have piles of disposable plastic bags cluttering your home? Follow these instructions and you could soon have a set of reusable bags instead.’ Older children could write a detailed explanation and include the passive voice to add a formal, technical tone to their writing: ‘First, the bags were collected and washed….’
Children could get into role as journalists, and create interview questions for Isatou. You could ask them to write a newspaper report detailing the work of the women of Gambia or reporting on another aspect of the plastic war, such as turtles entrapped in plastic or animals swallowing it. The book lends itself to research: older readers could compose a non-chronological report with sections under various headings about plastic, including its history and manufacture. If they have been inspired by Isatou’s story, children may be interested to write a biography of her life, using the the timeline at the back of the book.
Finally, give children plenty of time to edit and improve their work, as well as the chance to publish their favourite pieces of writing.
I sincerely hope you and your pupils enjoy this gem of a book as much as I did, and are inspired by Isatou Ceesay’s tale of innovation and determination.
People thought I was too young and that women couldn’t be leaders. I took these things as challenges; they gave me more power. I didn’t call out the problems - I called out solutions.”