In the cold, white of winter, we find ourselves occasionally thinking of green woods, tall trees, and the busy sounds of birds and squirrels. And we are not the only ones who think about trees. There are many wonderful picture books about trees and forests. We have chosen a few to share in this column.
The Leaf Detective, an engaging book written by Heather Lang and illustrated by Jana Christy, tells the story of Margaret Lowman, a scientist who, as a shy child, wrapped nature around herself like a blanket. She loved being outside, collecting bits of nature — leaves, acorns, ferns. She found “comfort and friendship and quiet excitement in plants.”
That love of the natural world has never abated.
She went to college and wanted to continue her studies but found herself “a young woman in a jungle of men…. One professor refused to let her into his class because she was a woman.” But Meg persevered and decided to study the Australian rain forest — in her own way. She wanted to study the tops of the trees. No one had ever done that. And Meg did not know how to do it either. She thought and thought about how she might get into the tree canopy. Finally she rigged a way with a harness and a sling shot to climb a rope up to the treetops. She never looked back — and hardly ever looked down.
Meg Lowman’s life work has been studying trees — and convincing people all over the world to value their forests. She has helped design woodland walkways high above the ground so anyone can see the marvels of the treetops. She has traveled to places like Cameroon, Samoa, and Ethiopia to help the people in those places learn ways to earn their living with canopy tourism, sharing and showing off their trees instead of cutting them down.
This informative book, with Christy’s lush art that takes us up into the canopy alongside Meg, has extra text on carefully-placed leaves on nearly every spread. The back matter tells of Lang’s trip through a Peruvian rain forest, guided by Meg Lowman.
A great book to pair with The Leaf Detective, because it takes us right up next to a rain forest tree in the Amazon rain forest, is The Great Kapok Tree. Lynn Cherry’s classic book is a clarion call to protect rain forests — and begins with a note from the author encouraging the reader to help protect rain forests, including an address to send contributions.
This beautiful, impassioned book begins with two men walking into a rain forest. one carries an axe, the other points to a tree. When the second man leaves we all know what will happen next. The man with the axe will chop down the tree. But after a few whacks he grows weary and lays down to rest. As he sleeps the forest creatures come to beg him to spare their tree. Snake, bee, monkey all point out that they depend on the tree for habitat and food. The tree frog says, “Ruined rain forest means ruined lives. You will leave many of us homeless if you chop down the great kapok tree.” And the sloth, finally making her way down to the sleeping man, asks, “How much is beauty worth…if you destroy the beauty of the rain forest on what would you feast your eyes?”
When the man wakes up he sees spots of sunlight that “glowed like jewels amidst the dark green forest.” He smells the “fragrant perfumes” of the vining flowers, hanging from the trees branches. But there is no sound. “The creatures were strangely silent. The man raises his axe to resume his task of whacking and chopping. Then he drops the axe and walks out of the forest.
Lynn Cheney travelled to the Brazilian rain forest to research the illustrations for the great Kapok tree. Her rich, detailed art gives us a glimpse of “the awesome beauty of the rain forest and the marvelous creatures that inhabit it.”
When the Sakura Bloom written and illustrated by Narisa Togo takes us to a city in Japan where people “hustle, bustle, hurry dash” to their morning work or school beneath the budding branches of Sakura trees bursting with “red-ocher buds turning pistachio green.” A double page spread shows the flowers gradually unfolding into glorious pale pink bloom (in this country we know them as cherry blossoms).
Birds visit the flowers, burying their beaks to reach the nectar and inadvertently gathering and spreading pollen from flower to flower. People who have hurried past the almost-bare branches now pause in their morning rush to admire the flowers. Within a week it is time for the Sakura Festival.Crowds come to lunch and delight under the blossoming branches. When an afternoon rain becomes a fierce storm, turning a ceiling of pink into a carpet of pink “the Sakura festival is over. So brief, so beautiful.” But the Sakura trees know what to do. They sprout leaves and grow fruit, and beneath their now- green branches people once again “hustle, bustle, hurry dash” under the leafy green trees.
The book is in landscape format — wider than it is tall — which makes a perfect canvas for the trees lining the sidewalk. Soft, delicate art takes the Sakura from bare branches to bud to beautiful bloom to leaf, all while the hurrying city life goes on beneath them.
Before We Stood Tall, written by Jessica Kulekjian and illustrated by Madeline Kloepper, is the story of the growth of trees from seedling to “tall,” except that it’s told in reverse.
This lovely poem begins, “Before we were mighty in the kingdom of trees…” and continues “Before we stood tall we clothed ourselves in bark and crowned/ourselves in leaves, waving eagerly at the sun.” The tree narrator takes us by steps back to underground. “There in the darkness our roots searched the soil…and found a family of trees reaching out for us.” And finally the circle closes: “Before our seeds took flight we dreamed in the branches/hoping to be mighty in the kingdom of trees.”
By showing the growth of a tree in reverse, the author shakes up our expectations and heightens our awareness and appreciation of all that happens as trees get to be “mighty in the kingdom of trees.” And Madeline Kloepper’s illustrations are joyful and energetic — a celebration of trees all by themselves. Even the endpapers are exquisitely leafy. But together, illustrations and words are more than the sum of their parts. They remind us of the gift of trees — a feast for our eyes, and our hearts, inspiration to warm us all winter.
Kulekjian gives trees a voice. Meg Fleming, too, in The Leaf Detective, uses her voice
to inspire people
to save their rainforests
to save themselves.
Because to Meg, a tree is not just a tree.
It is a shelter for animals and people,
a recycler and provider of water,
a creator of food and oxygen,
an inventor of medicine,
a soldier against climate change.
It is essential for life on earth.
a few more tree books
The Grandad Tree, by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Sharon Wilson (we wrote about this book in August 2015)
A Walk in the Forest, by Maria Dek
Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees,by Franck Prévot, illustrated by Aurélia Fronty
The Boy Who Grew a Forest: The True Story of Jadav Payeng, by Sophia Gholz, illustrated by Kayla Harren
nell plants a tree, by Anne Wynter, illustrated by Daniel Miyares
From the Tops of the Trees, Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Rachel Wada