By Deanna Day-Wiff, Washington State University, Vancouver, WA, and Kathleen Crawford-Mckinney, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
Trees. They make our world more beautiful and they provide food and shelter for wildlife and keep the soil, water and air clean for us. They decorate front and back yards across North America. Their wood is used for paper and lumber. Wooded areas are preserved for us to hike and enjoy nature. Trees are a necessity and are the theme of this month’s My Take/Your Take. Learn about all of the new children’s books around trees through the perspectives of Deanna Day and Kathleen Crawford-McKinney.
DEANNA: The Happiest Tree is a wonderful picturebook that was originally published in 2016 in Korea. The first double page spread shows a large crane moving a ginkgo tree, ready to be planted in front of an apartment building. The text reads, “I moved to this building when I was ten years old.” The life of this tree shares what he sees, feels and thinks over the course of his life, growing higher and higher, floor by floor.
On the ground floor the tree hears beautiful sounds from a piano class. He listens to the music with his friends, the birds and cats. At 14 years old he meets an artist on the second floor who paints the tree in all of its different seasons–full of green luscious leaves, yellow fall leaves to bare tree limbs and finally small buds. The tree exclaims, “For the first time ever, I could see myself” because the painter displays one of the paintings on an easel for the tree to view.
When the tree turns 17, he reaches the third floor and glimpses inside the Kong family’s apartment that has five puppies. He enjoys sheltering the Kong family and watching all of the pups chase his falling leaves. When he turns 20 years old, he gazed through the dark fourth-floor window and saw a lonely grandmother looking at family photographs. The watercolor illustrations depict multiple rain drops in gloomy blue and gray colors. The tree cries, “I felt sadness when I looked at the grandmother.”
On a couple of pages readers view the tree with different backgrounds—the tree at dusk with a full moon and the tree surrounded by glittering stars. One beautiful morning the tree’s branches reach above the rooftop of the building. Finally, he hears greetings from other trees across the town and announces, “I am the happiest ginkgo tree…”
KATHLEEN: I find it interesting that it took 3 years after the first publication for this book to be translated from Korean and published in the United States. This book has a global concept of change of time; in particular, young readers will be able to grasp this concept through the text and illustration. Each double-page spread provides ample illustrations to grasp this concept.
What draws me in as a reader/viewer of this picturebook is the narrator’s voice, the tree. I don’t think it is common to have books told through this perspective. The voice provides the conduit to, as a reader, feel the emotions of the people in the apartment complex. There are happy times as seen through the Kong family playing, playing with puppies; and loneliness as the tree sees life through a grandmother sitting alone in her apartment looking at family photographs.
The ending left me wondering. The tree grew and was able to see all the ginkgo trees around and be part of a tree community, “Now I can hear the greetings of other trees beyond the old building. I am the happiest ginkgo tree in my town.” I guess I wanted more information about the people in the apartment complex. Does the grandmother find solace in others? Do the puppies and children grow up? I didn’t see their change, only the change of the tree. It left me hanging at the end. Was that just me? What do you think Deanna?
DEANNA: This is a thought-provoking point Kathleen. I am so enamored with how the tree grew and evolved throughout the illustrations that it didn’t bother me that there wasn’t any resolution with the minor characters, people, in the picturebook. This may be why I enjoyed the book so much–I imagined the grandmother healing from her loss, the puppies finding wonderful families to live with and the artist finding another muse to paint.
Teachers, librarians and families could read aloud this book to enjoy with students and children. But this picturebook would be perfect for a text set on change over time and for an inquiry on trees, nature or the environment.
Title: The Happiest Tree: A Story of Growing Up
Author: Hyeon-Ju Lee
Date Published: April 30, 2019
Throughout September 2019, Deanna and Kathleen give their takes on books focused on the importance of trees. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!