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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
The Searcher and Old Tree
The Searcher and Old Tree
written and illustrated by David McPhail
He closes his eyes and goes to sleep.
While the Searcher sleeps, the wind starts to blow.
It whips the waves.
The wind blows harder. The waves slam against the shore.
BOOM! The ground shakes.
--The Searcher and Old Tree by David McPhail, p. 6-10.
It's important for kids to know they're safe, and that they can depend on their family, no matter what happens. The Searcher and Old Tree strives to tell children that, and for some children, the story will succeed. Sensitive readers and children who are easily frightened, though, may feel less than reassured by the story.
The Searcher, a raccoon, eats his supper, then returns home to his Old Tree, where he falls asleep. While he's sleeping, a storm overtakes the land, wreaking destruction--but Searcher sleeps on. His tree holds firm, protecting him. The storm abates near morning, and when Searcher wakes up, he notices something is different. He also realizes that his tree will always be there waiting for him.
McPhail uses language to help build up the sense of safety and security, before he brings in the storm, such as Searcher's "belly is full," his home Old Tree has a "sturdy trunk" and "familiar branches." The word choices work well.
McPhail then brings tension into the story text through the storm and the evocative words that convey the storm, such as that the wind "whips the waves" and they "slam against the shore" and the wind "rips" through the branches. The words are well chosen and strong, conveying the viciousness of the storm. But for me, there were too many of them, and the storm went on too long. Though some reassuring things were woven into the storm, such as that it couldn't uproot the Old Tree, the storm feels violent. It may scare some readers, and it takes over the book.
I saw the storm as a metaphor for life's troubles--for whatever it is that shakes the reader's world. And the Old Tree feels like a metaphor for a parent, caregiver, or loved one, and home--reminding the reader that they have that security and safety. The metaphors work well.
But I felt like we were missing something in the story--something to help us care. Though it's nice that Searcher slept through the storm, that he felt safe enough to, we lost out on Searcher, himself. We didn't get to see him doing anything--interacting, talking, thinking, feeling, or dreaming. The storm acted almost like a character in the book--but a violent character. I wanted to feel Searcher as a character, to care about him more. Even his name, "the Searcher," brought distance for me. I think the intent of the story is to reassure the reader, but the book didn't bring that for me. However, other readers may feel differently; there are reassuring aspects to the book.
McPhail successfully brings relief to the reader as he brings about the calm after the storm, the normalization of Searcher getting hungry and waking up, the humor of him not having noticed the storm, and both he and the reader being reassured by the fact that his home, his tree, will be waiting for him when he returns.
McPhail's pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations are trademark McPhail; if you've seen his work before, you'll recognize it here at a glance--the soft watercolors, the ink outlines and hatching, the gentleness to the illustrations, the soft curves and faces. Colors are blended beautifully, showing shadow, light and dark, and a movement of color--such as an evening sky having purples and deep blues within it.
McPhail uses lights and darks well to create a sense of shadow and light, and he knows when to layer on color, and when to leave the page lighter (such as highlights and coloring in Searcher, and light on the Old Tree). There is a rounded softness to the illustrations, in both the objects (such as the tree) and in the outlines of the illustrations themselves, which have rounded corners, some more than others. McPhail's pen is deft, his lines sure, showing movement and emotion with sweeps of his pen and brush. His illustrations, as always, pull me in.
Bonus illustrations included in the front matter add to the story, showing Searcher waking up in his tree, climbing down, and eating his fill from garbage cans before the story text even begins.
This is a book that, for some children, will help them feel more secure, help them realize that their home is a safe place, just like racoon's--that the storm didn't blow him away, and won't blow them, either. For some sensitive children, however, this book might be scary, with the storm wreaking destruction--even though Searcher and his home stay safe. It's a book worth checking out; see how it fits for you.
-Added July 31, 2008
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