The Tree in Me: Part One

March 16, 2021 § 3 Comments

(This is an extra-special week on the blog, so you’re getting not one but TWO posts! First, on the day it officially releases, I’m talking about Corinna Luyken’s exquisite new picture book, The Tree in Me. Then, on Thursday, I’ll be featuring an interview I did with Corinna herself, in which we talk about her inspiration for the book, her writing process, and her favorite books to read aloud with her tween daughter. It’s the first interview I’ve done for the blog, and I’m hoping you’ll let me know if you’re excited for me to do more!)

We have been sleeping with the windows open of late. Here in Virginia, as winter takes its exit, it’s only the briefest of spells before the pollen seeps through the screens, followed by the aggressive rise in humidity, and we must shutter the windows and crank up the central air. But, right now, it’s perfection. Cocooned in blankets, with breezes dancing around my head, I embrace the fluidity between inside and outside. It awakens something within me—not unlike standing on a mountain top or in a grove of wildflowers—and puts me in mind of being a child again.

At no time more than childhood do we exhibit such a primal connection to the natural world. When I think of my own children in their early years, I think of them running barefoot in summer and catching snowflakes on their tongues in winter. I think of the sticks that never left their hands, the fairy houses they constructed from moss, the leaf piles they jumped in. I think about how picking apples off branches felt magical to them, biting into them moments later even more so. I think about how my daughter used to climb trees without reservation, even while we looked on with our hearts in our throats.

In her newest picture book, The Tree in Me (Ages 3-8), Corinna Luyken captures this childlike exuberance for the natural world with the careful intent, originality, and dazzling use of color we’ve come to adore from her. [More on previous favorites in Thursday’s interview with Corinna.] Through sparse, poetic text—each word carefully chosen and perfectly placed—and dynamic, gorgeously-saturated gouache illustrations—helllloooo, neon pink—The Tree in Me invokes the metaphor of a tree to celebrate the strength, resilience, and bounty inside all of us. It reminds us that, as part of the living world, we move and breathe and give and take in a way that binds us together. We can shutter our windows, but the natural world lives on inside us.

The poem’s opening sentence spans six double-page spreads, never losing its rhythm and making optimal use of every page turn: “The tree in me/ is part apple,/ part orange-pear-apple-plum/ (part yummm),/ part shade,/ and part sun.” A brown-skinned child with a mop of black hair enjoys pie from freshly-picked apples, before collapsing in a shady grove with friends. This is the most literal interpretation of the tree metaphor: the tree is in us because we ingest its fruit.

From here we establish a connection to the tree’s physical structure, one that mirrors a child’s own up-and-out growth: “The tree in me/ is seed and blossom/ bark and stump,/ branch and trunk/ and crown!”

By extension, our intimacy with trees must also include birds, squirrels, worms, and bees, to name a few—those who dwell in the tree’s branches, pollinate its blossoms, and nurture the soil in which it stands.

Then there are the forces that act upon the tree—the wind, rain, dirt, and sky—which remind us that a tree, like us, is never static. In one of my favorite spreads, the arc of a child’s long black hair matches that of a leaning tree. “And because there is/ a tree in me,/ there is wind[…]”

Remember when I used the word exuberance? Just look at this next spread.

Now comes language that speaks directly to individual resilience—but still in the context of interconnectedness. “The tree in me/ is strong./ It bends,/ and has roots/ that go deep…/down to where/ other roots reach up/ toward their own/ trunk-branch-crown.” I love this idea, that the tree within us is both solitary and deeply connected. Just when we think we are alone, we are not.

The poem ends with this call to connection. “Because there is/ a tree,/ and a sky,/ and a sun/ in me,/ I can see/ that there is also/ a tree…/ in you.” The same child from the book’s beginning now stretches toward an adult—the child’s mother perhaps—both with bits of leaves and branches now extending from the tips of their fingers and the ends of their hair.

It took me until the book’s final page to realize that, for a book with “tree” in its title, Corinna has, in fact, used no green in her artwork. I think this was the moment I knew I wanted to interview her—and I can’t wait for you to read in Thursday’s post what she says about the specific color choices she made for this book. Without giving away too much, I will say only that I think Corinna has tremendous respect for her young readers, including and especially for the work they are doing, every single day, to make sense of their place in the world. Replacing green with neon pink lends the book a transcendent quality. It’s about more than trees. It’s about more than about our relationship to trees. The Tree in Me is a celebration of the life force that runs through all living things.

In a year where we have had to practice distancing with our physical selves, it is a gift to be reminded so exquisitely that we still belong to one another.

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Review copy from Dial Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.

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