Big Tree by Brian Selznick

Big Tree by Brian Selznick

Big Tree Book Review by Joy Lawn (Joy in Books) at PaperbarkWords blog

‘“You’re very small, but small things grow. And you can work with others. That’s called a community. And in your community, you can feel safe and loved.”

“And we can figure out how to save the world together, said Merwin.

That’s the only way to do it.” (Big Tree)

Brian Selznick’s first major work The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a seminal book. Its combination of page after page of black and white drawings interspersed with pages of written text and its setting in a 1930s Paris train station where Hugo winds the clocks; the Lumiere Cinématographe, automaton, the moon and a character based on the real-life filmmaker Georges Méliès broke the mould. Is it a graphic novel or an illustrated book? By defying convention and foregrounding his extraordinary illustrations, Selznick created a new visual-literary form.

Selznick followed this with the major works Wonderstruck (also made into a movie), The Marvels and Kaleidoscope. His new book is Big Tree (published by Scholastic).

Big Tree is a sweeping story with the major theme of saving the world together. It also explores the cycle of life and death, destiny, dreams and reality and life being a gift. These potentially weighty ideas are personalised and made accessible to young readers by Louise, the narrator. Louise is the smallest Sycamore seed in the seedball. She dreams of the stars and wants to grow up on the moon.

Merwin, her closest brother seed, describes the world to her and vows to protects her. Their calm, capable Mama prepares her children for their future without her. She tells them that they will have roots and (metaphorical) wings. Once the wind takes them away from her they must find the right conditions to grow and thrive: good soil, light and fresh water.

The Ambassadors, mushrooms who are part of the “vast underground system with millions of miles of tiny fibres connecting all the roots of the trees in the forest like an endless river of knowledge”, warn that Giants are coming. The reader-viewer sees parts of the escaping animals before realising that they are running from fire.

Once the seeds are released, the fluff that attached them to their seedball facilitate their ‘flight’. Louise thinks that she and Merwin have landed on the moon but they are, instead, on top of a prehistoric sea creature. Their adventures take them underwater where King Seaweed imprisons them under a shell. There they meet the Scientists who collect data for analysis.

They hear about the Terrible Volcano and are helped on their way to the Beautiful Mountain where they hope to find a safe place to grow by the butterfly they name Spot. Along the way they encounter the ancient ferns and the decaying leaf.

Eons pass. Louise and Merwin are separated. The “only thing left was love.” When they finally reunite, Merwin discovers that Louise has become a towering tree. She exclaims to Merwin, “We made it to the moon.” And they did – metaphorically.

Image from Big Tree by Brian Selznick (Scholastic)

Throughout the tale, the sometimes ominous, but always omniscient voice of the Old One is heard.

More time passes. Sixty-six million years later people appear. An allegorical Child tends a plant and hears the story of seeds, roots and wings. The Child listens to a voice calling her name and the cycle continues with the prediction of a hopeful future.

In Big Tree Brian Selznick uses pencil on hot pressed Fabriano Artistico Extra White watercolour paper. His illustrations here are more amorphous and less intricate than in some of his other books.

As in Selznick’s other major books, his black and white illustrations here often extend over multiple pages. Zooming, close-ups and cropping enable the narrative to unfold, albeit often with ambiguity to create mystique and suspense. These techniques also influence pacing and intimate the passing of time.

Image from Big Tree by Brian Selznick (Scholastic)

At times the pictures are deliberately dramatic, such as when the mouse-creature is escaping from a predator’s big open mouth of menacing teeth.

Image from Big Tree by Brian Selznick (Scholastic)

There are many white pages with minimal text. These pages serve as a contrast and provide space for the reader-viewer to imagine the scenes and ideas for themselves if they wish.

In an important ‘Afterward’ the science behind the events and characters is explained. For instance, the Ambassadors are the mycorrhizal fungi that connect fungi and trees in the forest (the “wood-wide web”); the dinosaurs are identified; the sycamore trees and butterfly/ancient lacewing are classified into their Cretaceous time-period. We then realise the full extent of how Selznick has woven science into his tale.

Among others, Selznick acknowledges Steven Spielberg,

A poem by environmentalist W.S. Merwin (after whom the character in the book is named) appears on the final page.

It begins:

“On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree …”

Thank you to Scholastic Press for the review copy of Big Tree.

Big Tree at Scholastic Australia

Brian Selznick’s website

Review at Publishers Weekly

*****

Additional resource:

CAN YOU HEAR THE TREES TALKING?

by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone Books (New South Books)

Can You Hear the Trees Talking: Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest is the young readers’ edition of the New York Times bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees. Author-educator Peter Wohlleben guides children through his forest school in Germany to provide hands-on knowledge. Consequently, the examples in this book are about European trees and habitats but the information is well described and much is relevant for Australian children in upper primary/junior secondary.

The book is formatted as a well-designed sumptuous hardcover with high quality photos, some interactive parts and sections that engage the reader by posing interesting questions such as Do Trees Sleep at Night? and Can Trees Talk? Yes, we discover that trees can feel and communicate, particularly through fungi, the ‘forest internet’.

Much of the information is fascinating and little known. As well as important background facts about how trees breathe and drink and the role of leaves and roots, we also learn about tree mouths, how root tips resemble small brains, how stumps can live for hundreds of years, the defensive role of sticky pitch and how bees herd and farm aphids.

Of further relevance to Australian environments is how trees deal with lack of water (even by helping to make rain themselves) and the essential role they play in cities. The author acknowledges that there is still much to learn about trees and suggests that the reader may one day find the answers.

Joy Lawn NSW

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