It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to understand the importance of trees as a metaphor or literary device in children’s literature. Their growth from seed to giant is in accordance with the growth of knowledge or imagination, they represent the wild within urban areas, they are a liminal space between ground and air. We use them in all manner of ways to talk about family trees, with all the various branches. We refer to a ‘tree of life’, a force that connects creation. Trees are affirmative – they give life by releasing oxygen, they provide food and shelter, they cover about 30 per cent of the world’s land area. No wonder I can rattle off ‘tree’ books in an instant – The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, The Thirteen Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, The Magic Treehouse books by Mary Pope Osborne…and so many more.
But these three recent ‘tree’ books are something special.
There’s something about a treehouse – that arboreal space that’s also domestic, a meeting of urban and wild, a place where imagination lets loose. This is sumptuously captured in this highly detailed picture book published earlier this year. Lyrical text leads the reader into the book – explaining that what you need for a treehouse is time and imagination. The text then branches out into poetry, using extended metaphor and alliteration, comparing trees to an army, but then calming into more natural imagery – sun speckles seen close, boxes for begonias, and of course elements of play. And the treehouses imagined in this book invoke all sorts of play, from swinging tyres to bookshelves and boats.
There’s practical advice about building treehouses too: proposing a child starts with a plan, or wears a hard hat, and remembers snacks and socks for cold overnight stays. The beauty of the language, of course, is that this is not a set narrative, but a bundle of suggestions, a plethora of ideas. And so illustrator Emily Hughes is let loose with her imagination – just as the child would be, with passion for adventure and creativity.
There are numerous children in this book – a whole school perhaps or a village – each with their own identity, using brains or brawn or humour to play their part. One girl does another’s hair while she lies in a sleeping bag, some children are telling ghostly stories with shadow movement, others listen to music or watch the stars. They play pirates, or direct others with drills and measuring tape. And each page holds a different kind of treehouse – one over water, one as a pirate ship, one as a palm house, and one with a helter skelter staircase. These are treehouses from the imagination and they are fully realised on the page – detailed, wondrous and fantastical. Because of course, not all children have the adult help, time, resources or space to build a treehouse, but Hughes shows that even with just imagination, the most fanciful treehouses can be built in the mind or on the page. Like castles in the sky. You can buy it here.
Jacobs is a prolific and popular author, with more than 120 books published, although mainly in Afrikaans. This novel, translated into English, is a light book about serious issues. Marnus feels invisible, stuck in the middle of a teenage older brother and a genius entrepreneur younger brother. So when Leila knocks on his door with a petition to save a tree, an opportunity presents. Before he knows it, he’s climbing a tree to stop the bulldozers, and then remaining there in case the bulldozers return.
As well as showing the reader how activism develops – from kindly neighbours and friends, to local journalists, and student protestors, the book explores a thirteen year old’s friendship with a child of the opposite sex, particularly one he’s just met – Marnus’s awkwardness round Leila is drawn with pathos and understanding, and quite a bit of humour too.
A cast of eccentric characters who gather round the tree and their activism makes the text warm and quirky, but Jacobs does more than just populate the story with colour – each character has their motivations and backstory, each character is fully developed and cleverly drawn. But it is Leila’s motive to save the tree that draws the book to a satisfying close – and leaves the reader feeling both fulfilled and uplifted. (Age 8+ years). You can buy a copy here.
Another well-known and hugely admired author, Mal Peet’s emotive and evocative novella, The Family Tree, has been given loving treatment by publishers Barrington Stoke after his death. Peet’s succinct, intuitive and astute writing tells the emotional story of an unnamed narrator who returns to his childhood house, looking back with nostalgia but also adult realism, as he recalls the breakdown of his parents’ marriage and the pivotal treehouse in the garden, which provided a childhood adventure but also eventually the sanctuary for his father’s breakdown.
Stunningly told, the publishers have pared the perspicacious prose with Shoard’s impressionistic full colour illustrations – their light smudging a beautiful counterpart to a story going back into the past. Features are slightly indistinct, the green and greys lend a fluidity to the scenes, and the treehouse is both a loving object and a place of menace as it becomes the father’s home and the cause of much angst and pain. Shoard’s illustrations bring an almost sensory element to fill the white spaces left in between Peet’s words – the body language of the three family characters is both poignant and brilliant.
Rarely does one come across a children’s tale written quite so hauntingly, leaving one drained and emotional but also strangely hopeful, nostalgic and understanding of human nature, and in particular fatherhood. I read in one sitting – as will you – and yet it will stay with you much longer than the hardiest of treehouses. (YA title, not suitable for younger readers). Unmissable. Buy it here.