The Seed That Keeps On Giving

February 23, 2023 § Leave a comment

We may have just wrapped up Awards season (if you need a recap on the 2023 Caldecott & Newbery winners, check out my Instagram reel), but it’s never too early to speculate on next year’s winners. If we’re placing bets, my money is on one new picture book in particular, a story so lyrically crafted and gorgeously illustrated that I think it could be a contender for both a Newbery (words) and a Caldecott (illustration). Only time will tell, but the good news is you don’t have to wait until next January’s announcements to begin reaping the rewards of this one. Its depiction of Black Joy makes it perfect for Black History Month. Its emphasis on planting makes it perfect for spring. Its poetic text would be a terrific asset to National Poetry Month. But its child-centric joy will ensure little ones request it all year long—is there a child who hasn’t heeded the call to climb a tree?—and it’s one you’ll never tire of reading for its simple but profound beauty.

If we’re talking awards, it’s also a perfect book. Nary a superfluous word. Nary a picture that doesn’t expand on those words.

And, yes, if you’ve been hanging around for some time, you know I CANNOT RESIST A TREE STORY. (Past examples here, here, here…) My children might disagree, but I don’t think it’s solely a symptom of middle age that I notice trees (and birds, flowers, and strange beetles) more than ever. I think it’s also owing to the wealth of contemporary picture books on the subject! I’m quite certain we didn’t have the literature about the natural world that kids do today. And while we were content with Frog and Toad and magical wardrobes, I can’t help but think we were missing out on stories intended to invite reflection about the very life outside our window. Maybe that’s why, as a parent, I’m especially attracted to sharing these stories with my kids. I have as much to gain as they do.

Nell Plants a Tree (ages 4-8), written by Anne Wynter and illustrated by Daniel Miyares, is a fresh twist on the trees-are-great trope. Inspired by Wynter’s Texas childhood and Miyares’ weekly visits to his grandmother in rural South Carolina, the book explores the plentiful gifts a tree bestows on the generations lucky enough to grow up in its shade—particularly the children, who climb it, read beneath it, and play games around it. It’s a look at how the simple, child-friendly act of planting a tree can impact the world for years to come. It’s a book that invites marveling at the trees in our own backyards and parks, as much as it reminds us that the natural world is ever-changing, that the marks we leave on it today can shape our loved ones tomorrow.

I love when a picture book opens with a touch of disorientation, where we aren’t quite sure what or who the story is about. After a few pages, the rhythm of the text settles into a predictable flow, moving back and forth in time between two different childhoods, though the connection between the two isn’t entirely revealed until the end. The mystery is compelling.

Before a grip on a branch

and a fall to the ground

and a scrape

and a leap

and a reach for the top,

before anyone finds out how high they can climb,

Nell picks up a seed.

We observe four Black siblings as they climb and explore a great big pecan tree in their grandparents’ front yard. Each time we learn a little more about the special role this tree plays in the children’s visits—including letting them in on its secrets, like the baby birds in its nest—we flash back to the past, to a girl named Nell who buries a seed in a pot.

Like all good poetry, the language itself is as intriguing as the story it’s carefully imparting. Years of playing tag, for example, where the pecan tree marks the finish line, are described in select images that we must piece together in our imagination: “Before last place,/ as always,/ then fourth place,/ then second,/ arms driving,/ toes gripping,/ hand stretched to the trunk,/ before anyone wins for the very first time…”

Again, we flash back to Nell, watering her sprout, this time joined by her brother, their clothing distinctly old-fashioned to cue the span of time. (Careful readers may note these clothes are not dissimilar in color scheme to those of the grandparents in the present day.)

As the back-and-forth rhythm continues, we’re afforded the unique perspectives of the different siblings. Shown here, the eldest one, a girl who seems to have the most intimate relationship to the tree, a girl who looks a lot like Nell…but isn’t. Among its many gifts, the pecan tree offers her “the best spot to get lost” in a book (a girl after my own heart).

I’ve acknowledged the power of Anne Wynter’s words, so let’s take a minute to appreciate Daniel Miyares’ corresponding art—ink, gouache, and collage—not only for the way he denotes the passage of time, but for his use of light and shadow to create moments of wonder and connection. It’s especially evident in the spread below, as Nell “lets in the sun” by parting a curtain before her budding pot. I also love that nowhere in Nell’s story do we see her parents. Her crusade to care for this sapling is uniquely hers, an agency that will undoubtedly win the hearts of young readers.

The unique nature of the pecan tree is alluded to in a spread devoted to making pecan pie, as the grandmother elicits help from one of the grandchildren. In his Illustrator’s Note, Miyares shares his own memories around this seasonal joy.

Still, before there were pecan pies, there was Nell, shovel in hand, preparing to transplant her sapling from its pot into a hole in the ground.

By the end of the book, we’ve come full circle, and our suspicions are confirmed: Nell is the grandmother pictured in the present day, the pecan seed she once planted the very tree her grandchildren now enjoy during their visits. Alongside gorgeous pictures of the tree’s life cycle, we watch as Nell’s family grows and puts down their own roots.

During our recent home renovation, we had to lose a number of mature trees. (My son wept ugly tears. My daughter wrote a short story about it.) We planted new ones in their place, and I’ll admit I’m often willing them to grow faster, even as I will my own children to grow slower. But perhaps it’s time to re-frame. Perhaps I should look out our windows and appreciate the potential before me. The tribute to future generations, to carving out a little bit of joy for someone not yet born, not yet imagined. A beauty that might not take root, but if it does, it becomes a blessing that keeps on giving.

Have you enjoyed this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I’m active most days, posting reviews and updates on what my kids are reading, or Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Book gifted by Balzer & Bray, a division of HarperCollins. All opinions are my own. Links support the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the children’s buyer (and yes, we ship!).

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