Book review by Monica Friedman
A Gentle Story about Youth, Age, Nature, and the Circle of Life
This is the kind of book that kids read with a sense of enjoyment and identification, and adults read with tears in their eyes.
Tess is a typical nine-year-old who enjoys a special relationship with her favorite one hundred seventy-five year old tree, until the tree drops a few branches in a storm, is declared dangerous, and is “taken down” (read: “murdered in cold blood by a chainsaw-wielding maniac her mother apparently hired and paid”).
As an adult who remembers suffering many similar situations in her own childhood, I easily understand Tess’s response: she throws toys, screams at the neighbors, and kicks other trees. After all, the dangerous branches already came down.
Why pass the death sentence on an innocent tree because it “could fall and hurt someone?” I mean, anyone could fall and hurt someone.
That doesn’t mean we take those people apart with power tools, right?
Whereas I learned to live with the loss of my favorite trees, Tess requires a more formal mourning period, culminating in a memorial to “Celebrate the Life of Tess’s Tree,” to which she invites friends, family, and neighbors.
The tree’s memorial turns out to be a standing-room-only event attended by people of all ages.
“A neighbor with a white collar” begins the ceremony. Tess’s teacher reads the famous Robert Louis Stevenson poem about a child with a swing, which makes Tess cry.
But, to my mind, the parts that may make adults cry are the bits that suggest that life goes on.
First, subtly, before the ceremony Tess decorates “the children of her tree” (read: saplings) with yellow ribbons. Tess’s tree has had babies and, in this way, lives on.
(Some kids may need to have this pointed out to them; I’ve found this a helpful point in discussions with my stepdaughter about dying plants.)
One identifying mark of Tess’s tree is that “long ago, the words ‘Tyler and Max’ had been carved within the shape of a heart on the trunk.” To Tess’s surprise, the “handsome husband and pretty wife who looked like movie stars” who show up for the memorial are the original Tyler and Max, a couple who once scratched their love into the bark some time before Tess was born.
They state, “This was once our tree, too.”
But Tess’s tree is quite a bit older than the attractive couple, and next an elderly woman—white haired and walking with a cane—approaches to share the fact that she, too, loved Tess’s tree.
She presents Tess with a photograph taken “more than seventy years ago” of herself as a young girl, sitting in the branches of Tess’s tree.
Through the ceremony, Tess begins to understand how her tree has touched many lives, and afterward, “She thought about all her tree had done for so many people,” cries her last tear, and then knows that she’s OK.
Tess’s Tree is a beautiful story about the cycle of life, although, of course, most kids won’t see anything beyond Tess’s journey. But the book itself understands this perfect circle, and ends with a wordless drawing of Tess holding hands with the old woman who loved her tree seventy years ago, bracketed on either side by the ribbon-festooned saplings that are the children of Tess’s tree.
More books on death for kids.
Our Tree Named Steve is another picture book about the passing of a beloved tree.
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