Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Book Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Kamkwamba, W., Mealer, B., & Zunon, E. (2012). The boy who harnessed the wind. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin.

This was the best book I read this past summer. And I read a lot. And if you, like me, felt proud of taking apart (and reassembling) a boombox when you were a kid, you should read this book for a reality check.

You may know the author as the kid in Malawi who built a windmill out of found scraps—after all, he was on The Daily Show and gave a TED talk. But this is a book about hunger. The reason he wanted to build, specifically, a windmill? He wanted to have it power a pump so that his family could irrigate crops and be more resilient in the face of drought.
William Kamkwamba almost died of hunger. A badly timed drought killed an entire year’s harvest in his subsistence-farming community. Many people died; those who did not survived on scraps of food and food-like substances (the hulls leftover from milling corn, of no nutritive value, were sold as food). For months, his family shared one small handful of food each night, and his mother had a baby the week before they ran out of food entirely.
William survived, but he also experienced a different kind of hunger. He had to stop going to school because his parents couldn’t afford it anymore, and his primal need to learn about how the world works led him to read every book available in his local library about technology and science. That old intro physics textbook you donated to Textbooks for Africa? Explaining Physics? That’s the one he pored over. He could barely read or speak English. The other book that he deciphered, with the help of the patient librarian and her dictionary, was Using Energy. [This week, I’m trying to teach Physics 104 students about induced current, and this kid with a primary-school education and hardly any English figured it all out from an old college textbook. Shhh... Don’t tell my students.]

Any conversation about education must touch on issues of poverty. Students can’t learn without food to power their brains and enough sleep to consolidate what they learn. Growing up in Southern Africa and teaching physics in Gabon, I saw kids in circumstances much less dire than William’s struggle to get by in school. What William did, in the midst of a famine, is a little bit miraculous.
So, William builds this windmill and becomes an international sensation. Not a very long book, right? But it’s also a coming-of-age story about an awkward, nerdy boy who likes to tinker and whose best friend is his dog, which might be a bit familiar. Like a lot of nerds, he has a pretty keen sense of humor, much of it self-deprecating. I also found William’s own sketches that are in the book to be charming. If you can handle a feel-good, nerdy story that also happens to include a lot of people dying of hunger, this is your next book.

Submitted by Amihan Huesmann.

Copies of this book at UW-Madison Libraries

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