Get a free SCARS short story. Sign up for News & Goodies from YA Author Cheryl Rainfield
Love my books? Join my Street Team! You'll have my deep gratitude, hear book news first, get swag, and enter to win private contests
Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
The Red Tree
The Red Tree
by Shaun Tan
Simply Read (reprint),(2005)
sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to
and things go from bad to worse
darkness overcomes you
the world is a deaf machine
without sense or reason
--The Red Tree, by Shaun Tan, p. 1-11.
A child wakes up in her bed, feeling like there's nothing to look forward to, a few dead leaves scattered around the room and falling from above accentuating this feeling. Things seem to keep getting worse as she moves through her day—before she manages to leave her room, she is waist-deep in dead leaves, and as she walks down the street, we see her walk in the shadow of a huge fish head. We see just how awful she's really feeling, both through the text and the art—and then, at the end of the book, we feel the hope that bursts through her as a tiny red sprout of a tree bursts into full bloom in the center of her room like a gigantic red dandelion puff.
Tan (The Lost Thing) has created a direct conversation with the reader that can provide understanding and an enjoyable perusal. Many readers, children and adults alike, will identify with the feelings described here—feeling like there's nothing to look forward to in a day, feeling alone, like no one understands, feeling like you're always waiting for something that doesn't happen.... In effect, feeling sorrow and depression, despair and pain, isolation and hopelessness. These are universal feelings, and they are not always looked at in children's literature. Thankfully, the book does have hope in the end.
Tan's simple, spare text feels perfect to me—just the right amount of words that describe the way despair and grief can feel, each summing up the painting it's paired with. The text matches and builds on each painting in a way that feels inseparable. Some of the phrases are ones that are echoed by many people in an attempt to explain how they feel ("nobody understands").
At times, just a few words are paired with an illustration, as few as two ("nobody understands," "and wait"), and at other times an entire sentence is paired with an illustration ("sometimes you just don't know what you are supposed to do").
The text is written without punctuation or capitalization, but because it is broken up into complete thoughts or emotions and such digestible pieces, this does not interfere with understanding. Visually, the text is also used creatively, sometimes moving at a downward slant (fitting the emotion), sometimes with one or a few words written in larger or smaller type or slightly above the line the other words are on to underscore the meaning of a word, sometimes embedded within the illustration or broken up with spaces between. I often find this kind of manipulation of text distracting, but in this case it works so well that it didn't interfere at all with my reading, and at times enhanced it.
The stunning, beautiful, and at times nightmarish paintings in this book are highly evocative—they show so much emotion in an almost surreal-like way, using imagination, color play, metaphor, and fantasy to get to the heart of the emotions. We see the girl sitting inside a glass bottle on a stony beach with an undersea helmet on her head, saying "nobody understands." We also see her looking out through a padlocked window, where we see a magical sight reflected on the glass from the other side, of confetti and a paper dragonfly-like airplane floating above sunlit clouds, as the text says that "wonderful things are passing you by."
There is so much to look at in each illustration, and there is a beauty and wonder to them, even amid the pain. One particularly wonder-filled spread is a series of eight small paintings, where we start out seeing a pencil mark lines, counting time on a yellow-grey surface, and gradually see more and more of the whole picture—the girl's hand, arm, and knee as she marks the lines together into fives, the girl kneeling writing hundreds of scores, the girl kneeling on what looks like a hill counting thousands of scores—and then we see that the girl is on top of a gigantic snail shell, and that she has counted off scores all over its surface.
Tan makes good use of light and dark to emphasize both despair and the possibility of hope, and makes incredible use of textures, detail, color, and metaphor.
Some of the paintings use the entire spread, while others are smaller, taking up a portion of the page, or a page and a third. On all of the pages, a light, non-distracting background texture is painted around the illustration that helps to visually tie the painting to the page, keeping the focus on the illustration while visually extending it through texture. There is also a bonus of two extra paintings inserted before the copyright text for readers to pore over.
For me, this book has two spreads too many of despair, and not quite enough hope or good feeling at the end to give me an uplifting boost or provide a totally satisfying ending. But because of the brilliant burst of color in the live, hope-filled tree that was hinted at in the very first page (as a leaf print on the wall), and because it's the opposite of the dead leaves in the beginning, this book still works for me. However, it may be too painful for some readers. That is the only thing that keeps this being a 5 out of 5 review for me.
Observant readers will enjoy finding the tiny red leaf that appears in every illustration, a symbol of hope (lying in the gutter, swirling in the water, resting on the snail shell). These red leaves help increase the feeling of hope, and suggests that hope is always there, you just have to look for it. I admit I did not see them in the first read-through; once I found them, it became a much more enjoyable read.
If you've ever felt alone, despairing, misunderstood, or in need of hope, you'll understand this book and appreciate it's hopeful message at the end. You may want to be in a good place while reading it, though, and remember to watch out for those little red leaves. :) Highly recommended.
-Added January 2007
Want more books?
Go back to How to Feel Better: Coping & Working With Emotion to find great Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach.
Or, go to Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach to see all of the books.