Every day—not just Earth Day (April 22) or Arbor Day (April 26)–should be “tree-mendous.” I reached this conclusion as world-wide student protests about climate change overlapped last month with my reading of novelist Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018). Powers’ epic work about the fabulous nature and history of trees, linked in mythic ways to humanity’s survival, like Annie Proulx’s equally lengthy Barkskins (2016), is a compelling, tree-centric fiction written for adult or near-adult level readers. Both novels explore how people have endangered ourselves and Earth itself by the unheeding destruction of tree species and forest ecosystems. I began to wonder what graphic works examining these issues exist for young readers. Today’s post grew from that questioning “seed.” I found several books to recommend and one series to dismiss.
Tweens and upper elementary school kids will enjoy the entertaining characters created by author/illustrator Andy Hirsch in Trees: Kings of the Forest (2018). His main character is a child-like acorn who mistakenly thinks that “grown-up” trees lead boring, limited lives. A series of new friends—ranging from a frog to a fungus, a leaf shoot to a beetle, then a spider, squirrel, bee and woodpecker—explain how wrong the acorn is, even as they teasingly bicker with one another.
Hirsch’s full-color, cartoon-like images add pizazz to these exchanges and to the detailed information about trees in the narrative boxes and some word balloons. Close-ups, overlapping panels, panel-less images, and figures that extend beyond or between panels are some of the visual techniques that enhance humor here and move the action along smartly. I particularly liked the double spread, multi-character illustrations Hirsch created to depict forest ecosystems, fruit-bearing trees around the globe, and the photosynthesis cycle. Along with its engaging characters, the book’s final glossary and leaf illustrations offset its many bold-faced scientific terms for scientific processes. These at times are spelled out laboriously. This level of detail will benefit some readers even as it may annoy less-interested or younger ones.
With teen readers in mind, I eagerly turned to a recent comic book series titled Trees, collected in two volumes (2014-2016) and authored by veteran comics writer Warren Ellis. Was I disappointed! This series has almost nothing to do with ecology—or even real trees. Instead, its title refers to the aliens who have invaded Earth world-wide! These invaders resemble large Redwood trees, as illustrator Jason Howard shows, but the majority of his images depict how humans fight back or adjust to this invasion around the globe. In sometimes blunt language and adult encounters, author Ellis does deal with some social inequities or problems, but climate change is not one of them. Teens will need to turn elsewhere to learn more about this planet’s trees.
Two books organized as catalogs of trees world-wide are a good choice for teen and tween readers. One is Branching Out: How Trees are part of Our World (2014), written by Canadian Joan Marie Galat and illustrated with high-grade, full color photographs. Besides examining eleven different tree species, award-winning Galat in this 64 page, clearly-written volume looks briefly at climate change, tree physiology, a forest ecosystem, and ways to save trees. Galat’s book is a crisp, well-done scientific overview of the endangered trees of planet Earth. Another catalog of trees world-wide is a wonderful complement to Branching Out, as it tackles this subject from a different perspective.
Under the Canopy: Trees Around the World (2018) is a beautiful, oversized picture book, focusing on the myths and legends about seventeen tree species and four forests around the globe. Argentinian illustrator Cynthia Alonso’s luminous, saturated, and imaginatively stylized images will keep readers looking at and revisiting each double spread section. Alonso emphasizes the stories retold here by author “Iris Volant,” a pen name for Flying Eye Press’ author/editor Harriet Birkenshaw. The final double spread illustrating the seventeen different species may lead readers back to more science-oriented texts about these trees, only briefly identified here in their individual sections. Of course, readers of all ages can take pleasure in this lushly-rendered and designed picture book.
The wide-ranging appeal of picture books is why I also want to spotlight some tree-related picture book biographies. The Tree Lady: How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever (2013; 2018), written by H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrated by Jill McElmurry, depicts the impact determined “Kate” Sessions (1857 to 1940) had on the landscape of her adopted city, San Diego, California. This book’s vertiginous cover is as boldly designed as Sessions’ successful plans were for planting and tending a global variety of trees. She was inspired by her girlhood love of trees and the scientific education it led her to obtain. McElmurry uses gouache for the stylized American folk art figures and patterns illustrating Hopkins’ text, which emphasizes Sessions’ pioneering vision and determination. She had goals and dreams beyond any then deemed desirable or even achievable for women. No one believed these goals were possible, “[b]ut Kate did,” as Hopkins notes in this book’s effective refrain.
Another remarkable woman is the subject of several noteworthy picture biographies. Kenyan scientist and activist Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011) won 2004’s Nobel Peace Prize for her successful efforts to reforest her depleted homeland. Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees (2012; 2015), written by Franck Prevot and illustrated by Aurelia Fronty, is best suited for older readers, as it includes Kenya’s colonial past, different tribes, and contemporary political problems in ways other picture book biographies of Maathai do not. It also concludes with several pages of photo-illustrated background material, including some of Maathai’s own writing and speeches. Yet the colorful, stylized illustrations here are more vibrant than the main text, translated from its original French. Prevot’s translated narrative is clear enough but sometimes plodding.
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya (2010), written by veteran author Donna Jo Napoli and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, is more engaging. Napoli includes some Kenyan phrases as a refrain, and award-winning Nelson’s illustrations strikingly combine his original oil paintings with African textile designs. This biography contains more information about Maatthai than prominent author/illustrator Jeanette Winter’s Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story From Africa (2008), which is clearly aimed at the youngest readers and also suitable for reading aloud. Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace (2010), written by Jen Cullerton Johnson and illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler, is another Maathai biography I can recommend strongly. Its deftly-written text is somewhat broader in scope than Mama Miti without being overwhelming, and its engaging, colorful images employing quilt patterns will appeal to elementary age students, as well as other readers.
As you prepare for Earth Day and Arbor Day, do not reach for what might be a sentimental favorite, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964; 1992; 1999). Whatever your views about this classic work’s take on sacrifice and forgiveness, it is now clear that the chopped-down tree stump at its conclusion is an ecological disaster! When left to naturally die and decay, trees support a wide variety of life on Earth, as vividly seen in the award-winning A Log’s Life (1998), written by Wendy Pfeffer and illustrated by Robin Brickman. Instead, encourage young readers to combat deforestation by planting trees and other activities. A picture book such as We Planted a Tree (2010; 2016), written by Diane Muldrow and illustrated by Bob Staake, will appeal to young readers and may also be read aloud. A non-fiction work such as Treecology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Trees and Forests (2016) offers much to tween and teen readers. Its author Monica Russo, along with photographer Kevin Byron, also provide extensive back matter, including a useful Teacher’s Guide and Bibliography.
We all have a “tree-mendous” task ahead of us as we seek to combat climate change. We can succeed, but limited success or even failure these days are also scarily real prospects. The graphic works described here emphasize actions to take for positive outcomes, but some noted, concerned authors have joined in also issuing an eerie challenge to their adult fans: a brand-new work by each writer will only become available if a new forest in Norway survives the next hundred years to produce paper for printing these books! Until then, these works are locked away. Called Future Library, this project begun in 2014 by artist Katie Peterson so far includes fiction by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Sjon, Elif Shafak, and Han Kang. Ironically, even if this challenge succeeds, only today’s pre-readers and youngest readers may be around in 2114 to read these legacy works.