If you weren't a teacher or a librarian you wouldn't necessarily be aware of how critically important tree units are to our school systems. They're huge. Each and every year when I worked as a children's librarian I would watch as mountains of tree-related picture books got sucked out of my branch by teachers and kids assigned arboreal units. The end result tended to be a hyperaware state where whenever I found myself within a close approximation of a tree picture book my internal radar would start ah-beeping. Imagine, if you will, little invisible antennae rising up on my head when I found myself inextricably compelled to pick up and read Barbara Reid's "Picture a Tree". From its magnificent cover to its jaw-dropping interior spreads, Reid has just upped the bar on the whole "tree genre", such as it is. From here on in, when a kid asks a librarian for a tree book, that library had better have a copy of the Caldecott winner "A Tree Is Nice" on the one hand, and "Picture a Tree" on the other.
Endpapers display trees in a myriad of forms, from thunderstruck deciduous to the mushrooms that grow on a trunk. Says the text, "There is more than one way to picture a tree". You might consider that the tree sporting birds or snow is engaged in a game of dress-up. Or you might think a tree-lined walkway a tunnel or (seen from above) an ocean. Delving deftly into the many different ways that trees can be seen and interpreted and equated with the humans that dart above their roots, Reid creates all new ways of looking at and enjoying our fine leafy friends. Her final words, "Picture a tree. What do you see?"
I'm a sucker for a glorious glob of Plasticine. Seems I can't get enough of that colorful little substance. My first encounter with it in a children's picture book was the remarkably lovely (and catchy) "City Beats: A Hip-hoppy Pigeon Poem" by Kelly S. Rammell, illustrated by Jeanette Canyon. In this particular case author/illustrator Barbara Reid is hardly a Plasticine newbie. Her work on books like "Perfect Snow" cemented her early on as one of our premiere picture book Plasticine artist experts. In "Picture a Tree" Reid has committed "a Peter Sis". Which is to say, she's made her job harder than it needs be and ended up with something truly beautiful as a result. I don't know Ms. Reid so I can't say whether not she actually said to herself, "Today I'm going to make a book that will require me to make five billion teeny tiny individual Plasticine leaves." Regardless, that's what she's done here. "Five billion" might be a tad bit of an exaggeration but I suspect that if you were to corner Ms. Reid at a party she would admit that's what it felt like in the end. A book of this sort could have worked perfectly well if the trees had been big blobs of color rather than little bitty dots of delightfulness. Hat tip to the artist for going the extra mile.
There are some artists out there (who shall remain nameless) for whom a tricky medium is an end in itself. Were they to work in the realm of Plasticine they would think it a triumph to merely produce something coherent. So what really allows Reid to stand apart from her peers isn't necessarily her love of a relatively new artistic technique but that technique's blending with great storytelling to boot. The fact that she's able to discuss trees in a fun and interesting way without ever sounding cutesy or saccharine is remarkable. Playing in leaves really does feel like "A wild good-bye party" the way she displays it. Ditto a blanketing of snow as a "snowsuit". The text shown here takes its time and carefully considers different seasons and the ways kids interact with trees on a day-to-day basis. Best of all, it balances out urban tree experiences with rural tree experiences. You don't have to live in the suburbs to get what Reid is doing here. Hers is a tree book for all comers, all seasons.
The trick to any good picture book is the marriage of text and art. If you were to frame the art in a picture book, would it stand on its own and in its own right, free of context? And if you received a manuscript of this book with only the words, would you consider it a strong read? What I love about "Picture a Tree" is that it not only makes for an eye-popping visual jaw-dropper, and that it not only reads like a dream, but that it also fulfills a purpose. Kids need tree books. Good tree books. Original tree books that won't bore them to tears. Reid delivers. Hers is a book you can enjoy any time of the year in any context, tree assignment or no tree assignment. Celebrate Arbor Day early. Grab yourself a bit o' tree. A book that makes its pulped paper proud.
For ages 3-7.