Book Review – The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

Title: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
William Kamkwamba & Bryan Mealer
Format: Hardcover Nonfiction

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the story of William Kamkwamba, a teenage boy in Malawi who builds a windmill from salvaged parts.  It’s also a story of poverty and famine in a struggling African country.  William is raised on a subsistence farm in a small village called Masitala, where the belief in magic is still very strong.  When he can no longer afford to continue his education, William struggles to self-educate, first by sneaking into classes and later by making use of a small library of books which have been donated to his village school.

This is a brilliant book.  The writing is very smooth.  Kamkwamba admits his English is rough, and Bryan Mealer is an experience author and journalist.  But you get the sense that Mealer did his best to make William’s voice rather than his own shine through.  While the subject matter of the famine is grim, the tone is able to capture the seriousness of the situation without giving way to fatalism.

More than a simple slice of life biography, William’s story touches on a number of great subjects from faith (mainly represented by his father) to green energy to education, entrepreneurship, and determination.  It gives a taste of an African culture and third-world country from an insider’s perspective, which is educational, particular for first world Westerners.  And it will give you fresh appreciation for conveniences like electricity, plumbing, and public education.

The world they present isn’t sugar-coated.  But it doesn’t try to paint things as more bleak than they are either.  There’s a balance of life here, as much joy and hope as sadness and difficulty.  William dreams and learns and tries rather than despairing.

My criticisms are minor.  A few story points are told out of order, which got a little confusing when I was trying to place them in the time line, and a few of images struck me as oddly placed.  But these are stickler issues and not so bad as ruin the overall meaning or effect.

Overall, I’ll give this one 5/5.  I might suggest the Young Reader version for elementary students.  It’s a fairly clean book but does touch on some adult topics in the anecdotes, which may be a bit much for a fourth grader.  However, I think they would still find William’s story of learning and applying science to help his family and community inspiring and relevant.

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