BY ARTHUR MCCULLOCH
Author: Jess M. Brallier, with illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds
Filed Under: Children’s
When I saw Tess’s Tree on display at The Blue Bunny, the local independent bookstore in Dedham, I grew excited. Here, I thought, was an opportunity to satisfy my interests on many different levels. A relative newcomer to Dedham, I’ve been making an effort to read books by local authors. I started with Peter Reynolds, an author, illustrator, and bookstore owner. The first book of his I purchased was The Dot. This was a wonderful story that my entire family enjoyed, and a book that I have since purchased to give as a gift. The illustrations were lovely, the character was both feisty and adorable, and the themes of the genesis of the artist and overcoming the fear of trying new things were compelling and well executed.
I purchased Tess’s Tree in the hopes of not just another great reading experience for me and my children, but one that would hold a special place on their bookshelf. I would be supporting the work of a local bookstore, a local artist, and I could do my best to advocate for it with a lovingly and spectacular review. My enthusiasm was doubly buoyed because I recognized the name of the author, Jess Braillier. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I worked with Jess, but I knew Jess from the days when our former employers shared an office space. Jess was the publisher of Planet Dexter, and among other books, he brought us the New York Times Bestselling title Grossology, by Sylvia Branzei, another book I consider special.
So I walked into The Blue Bunny and bought a signed copy of Tess’s Tree and everything was set for a great night. I removed the dust jacket delicately just before settling down into my glider and then plopped my daughter down on my lap and planned to be amazed.
My expectations were set too high. Tess’s Tree is a solid, well-illustrated book with an original story line and a wonderful message. However, I felt somewhat disappointed. Though I couldn’t quite figure out why.
Tess’s Tree is about a girl and her relationship with a very old tree. Immediately The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, comes to mind. Tess loves her tree. She plays in its shade, frolicks in its leaves, swings from its branches, and watches it with loving admiration and awe. However, the tree is very old. A storm passes through and the great limbs break from the trunk and come crashing to the earth. Tess’s mother is worried that the damaged tree is dangerous and decides to take it down. Of course, Tess is upset and she reacts with fury and pain. She hates seeing the tree reduced to its trunk and feels the tree doesn’t deserve to be simply forgotten.
She decides to give her tree a funeral. She invites everyone from town to gather by her fallen tree. Her parents and other adults rally to her idea, and in the course of holding the funeral Tess’s world is broadened. She is presented with a community of people who have shared their childhood with the tree. She realizes she is not alone in her grief; the loss is bigger than her own. The tree holds a special place in the lives of many different people across generations.
Tess is touched by the range of the tree’s influence in others’ lives and that her loss is something that extends to a community. The message of this book is terrific.
The illustrations in Tess’s Tree are wonderful. They add depth and emotional content to the story. The watercolors are vibrant and bring Tess to life. Reynolds is not afraid to depict Tess in moments where she is upset and lashing out at her surroundings, or when she behaves badly. This honest representation adds significant depth to her character, especially in concert with the joy she expresses at the beginning and the seriousness and maturity exhibited at the end.
Tess’s size in the drawings doesn’t always agree with her age. In these instances she appears terribly small for a nine-year old. Perhaps I am overly sensitive because I am a parent of young children, but it struck me how small her character looked when she was seated in a folding chair, when she kicks another tree in frustration, and when she leans against the tree trunk. I can forgive the individual tree trunk illustration because nothing else is in the scene to provide perspective on how high off the ground the tree trunk was severed, but the trunk appears no higher than shin level on a man in a subsequent illustration. Likewise, she appears about three feet tall when she stands in front of a fence. While sitting in the folding chair, Tess’s legs dangle over the edge and are not even close to touching the ground. When my four year old sits in a chair his legs extend at least as far as those depicted in the book.
So why was I left under-whelmed?
While the illustrations are mostly a credit to the book, the narrative content was somewhat lacking and the pacing of its delivery was problematic. In short, the illustrator did a great job with what he had to work with, but the end product was off-balance.
Compare Tess’s Tree with The Giving Tree. The latter story begins with: “Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy.” The tree is immediately invested with life of its own. Then we read that the boy loved the tree. The boy not only loves the tree, he comes, every day, to gather her leaves and make them into crowns; he climbs her trunk; he swings from her branches; he eats her apples; he plays hide and seek; and he plays in her shade. Silverstein cements the relationship between boy and tree by repeating that the boy loves the tree at the end of this relationship-building sequence. Here, the reader is provided with a firm sense of the depth of the emotional connection.
In addition to the narrative content, each aspect of the relationship is given a separate illustration. Therefore the narrative and the illustrations work organically to slowly build both the relationship and the emotional connection with the reader. Thus when things start to go sour in their friendship, the reader is prepared to react on both an intellectual and emotional level.
The pacing in Tess’s Tree is much different. After we meet Tess on the first page, four pages are devoted to a relationship-establishing sequence–The Giving Tree used nine. Over these four pages, we read: “This is Tess’s tree. Tess loved to swing from her tree, play in its leaves, and camp out under it. Tess loved her tree.” We also are fed details about Tess’s age in relation to the tree and we read how the leaves change colors with the seasons. There is nothing terribly remarkable or unique here about Tess and her tree. The final detail is hardly remarkable for anyone from New England and it is questionable whether seasonal changes would still inspire awe in a local child as old as nine. In short, I don’t think the language goes far enough to show how special the tree is to her.
In addition to the somewhat flat details, only four illustrations appear during this part of the narrative. There are many details, but few illustrations. For instance only one illustration accompanies text that includes three different things she does with her tree. I think the beginning of the book could have benefited from a more deliberate representation of her connection to the tree by using more unique textual details and/or more illustrations.
Instead, the pacing is too quick. We’ve hardly read or seen much at all about the relationship between tree and child before the tree is cut down and taken away. Because the connection between Tess and her tree wasn’t established at a slower, more deliberate pace, it is difficult to be sympathetic or empathetic with Tess at the moment in the story when the loss occurs. What, exactly did she lose that caused her such grief? Sure, we find out later in the story, by her actions, and the importance the tree played in the lives of others, but this comes after the fact. It is too late and therefore not nearly as compelling or effective.
Overall, my experience with Tess’s Tree was positive. The messages in the book are ones that should be shared with many children and can touch the lives of all people both young and old. I love the originality of the idea at work in this story: holding a funeral for a beloved tree. Tess’s experience is a wonderful illustration of how someone can healthily come to terms with grief; to realize that anger and sadness can be curative forces if expressed properly; how loss is an experience much broader than any one individual; and that children belong to a human experience much greater than themselves.
Similar Reads: The Giving Tree (Silverstein)