When severe drought descended on Malawi in 2001, precipitating widespread famine that eventually killed more than 10,000, 14-year-old William Kamkwamba was determined to do something to help his family and the other residents of his village of Wimbe. After studying diagrams in old science textbooks in the library, he fashioned a windmill from a tractor fan, shock absorbers, a broken bicycle, and other junkyard finds. This windmill, and others he subsequently built, brought electricity and life-saving water to his beleaguered village. With journalist Bryan Mealer, Kamkwamba told his remarkable story in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a 2009 adult title from Morrow. Just off press from Dial is a picture-book adaptation of the book, featuring art by Elizabeth Zunon.
Before hearing about Kamkwamba’s feat, Mealer had worked for almost five years as an Associated Press correspondent, largely covering the war in eastern Congo, and had written All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo, published by Bloomsbury USA in 2008. "As a reporter, I’d become steeped in all the ugly things associated with the war – pillage, rape, disease, and massacre," he recalls. "As you’d expect, I felt dispirited. Africans themselves would ask us why we always report on negative stories rather than focusing on good things that have happened in Africa. They had a point, but I obviously had to do my duty as a reporter, so I never really had a good answer for them."
The story of Kamkwamba’s accomplishment, which was covered in the media after he was asked to speak at the 2007 TED Global Conference in Tanzania, caught the eye of Mealer’s literary agent, Heather Schroder of ICM. "When Heather told me about William, it seemed to be a very inspiring story," says Mealer, who contacted Kamkwamba. "It wasn’t until I met William that I learned about the famine, which is really the most important part of the story, since it was the catalyst for everything he did. That made William’s story all the more amazing, and I knew that this was the positive story from Africa I’d been waiting to tell."
After landing a book deal with Morrow, Mealer traveled to Wimbe, where he spent time interviewing Kamkwamba with the help of a translator, Blessings Chikakula, one of Kamkwamba’s former teachers. "William’s mother cooked me dinner every night, and I transcribed my notes each night under lights powered by William’s windmill," says Mealer. "Talking with him, his extended family, and his neighbors, I pieced together his story. He is a shy and humble guy, and I wanted to capture his voice, which has a beautiful cadence. At the time, his English was still improving, and I was trying to figure out what his English voice would sound like. I think we pretty much nailed it."
The Next Chapter: A Children’s Book
Morrow’s edition of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind reached the New York Times, USA Today, and PW bestsellers list, and was named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. There are currently 250,000 copies in print of the various adult editions, including hardcover, paperback, large-print, and e-book.
Lori Hornik, president and publisher of Dial Books for Young Readers, first heard about Kamkwamba through his TED Conference speech and thought his story would be inspiring to young readers. When she approached Mealer about doing a picture-book adaptation of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, he and Kamkwamba jumped on board. "We had thought about doing a children’s book, and I remember thinking, 'Oh, this will be easy,' "says Mealer. "After working on the book for two or three months, I realized that it was actually very hard to write. It was like composing poetry. I have a two-year-old son and I read to him all the time, so now I get it. If I had known then what I know now I would have tackled the writing differently, and realized that you have to think minimalism from the beginning."
Hornik has high praise for Mealer’s adaptation. "I was blown away by his work on this book, especially since he had never done a picture book before," she says. "After writing a first draft, he was wonderful about understanding our feedback and revised the tone of the story. He did a gorgeous job condensing this tale into picture book form and capturing William’s personality and the setting."
The editor also praised the contribution of illustrator Elizabeth Zunon, who grew up on West Africa’s Ivory Coast and whose first two picture books (My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey by Jeanne Walker Harvey and Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby by Patricia MacLachlan) were published last fall. "She brought in some of her childhood memories to the book’s setting and did a lot of research, looking over photos of William’s family and home," says Hornik. "I think her combination of gorgeous portraiture and more abstract collage expresses the mood of the story exquisitely."
Bringing Kamkwamba’s story full circle, early copies of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind picture book were delivered to children in Wimbe in November by a representative of We Give Books, a program sponsored by Pearson, Dial’s parent company. For each book read online at www.WeGiveBooks.com, the program will donate a book to one of the schools and libraries being built through Moving Windmills Project. Inspired by Kamkwamba’s story, this initiative was founded in 2008 to pursue rural economic development in educational projects in Malawi.
Now 24 and speaking English flawlessly, Kamkwamba is a student at Dartmouth College, majoring in environmental studies and engineering and on track to graduate in spring 2014. He has worked in partnership with another initiative, buildOn.org, to build much-needed new classrooms for his primary school in Wimbe. He returned to Malawi in summer 2010 to teach children how to harness wind power. "The students at Wimbe Primary helped me install wind and solar power to the school, which was very exciting," he says. "Now children can read at night. And, thanks to a generous donation, they are now using laptops through the wind and solar power. I know that the electricity and new block of classrooms will help students to succeed with their studies."
Kamkwamba is thrilled that The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind will now reach young readers, and hopes his story will "motivate them to be positive about whatever they are doing. I also hope that kids will learn about another culture, and how people do different things in different communities. Mostly, I hope the book will encourage them with their studies and their passions – and teach them never to give up."
The wind-harnessing young man knows his work is not finished. After his college graduation, he plans to return to Malawi. "I want to apply the knowledge I’m gaining right now to solve challenges people are facing,” he says. "To be able to solve some of the problems in Malawi would make me very happy, and that is what I’m looking forward to doing."
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illus. by Elizabeth Zunon. Dial, $16.99 (Jan.) ISBN 978-0-8037-3511-8