It’s hard to quantify how inspiring this one has been for me. It belongs to a small category of very special picture books, ones that are deep and strange and sad but always end with hope.
Leave it to Shaun Tan to pull all that off.
THE RED TREE BY SHAUN TAN
The first page reads: “Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to.” We see a girl, in a room. The colors are muted and she looks sort of doomed. She doesn’t even have lips drawn in, her expression is so despairing. In the following pages things get worse, dark, confusing. Troubles and waiting and terrible fates.
There are natural and mechanical phenomena throughout the evocative illustrations that are baffling or harsh or ominously gloomy. And anyone who’s experienced depression will recognize the feelings the images capture.
But if you’re really good at noticing, as children usually are, you’ll see one red leaf somewhere on each spread —a little hint of the title’s red tree to come. Tiny bits of hope during the most lost and dark times. When the illuminated red tree does appear at the end, we finally see the girl’s mouth drawn in. It’s just one line and it’s turned up in a smile.
While there are not necessarily easy answers to the doldrums, the girl in the story is patient. And she notices that red sapling when it arrives. Or maybe she even imagines or conjures it into being.
My husband told me about a science project he did in elementary school in which kids chose a patch of dirt and took note of everything they observed. Did you ever do that one? At first glance, it was just dirt with some grass. But the longer students looked, the more they saw: bugs and worms and details. I love this idea of quietly noticing and how our noticing expands the more we pay attention. I think it helps. Makes us more mindful. Even calms us down.
So of course I had to do my own little patch of dirt census.
Here’s what I noticed:
- grass, different kinds
- spiny, round seed pods
- dried, crumply orange leaves
- a puddle of water from the sprinkler
- little flying bugs
- rocks and shards
- tiny hairs on stalks
- exposed red roots
- sounds of birds
- yellow and black butterflies
Here are two other kid-friendly projects you could do this summer (or anytime!) that may take you and yours to new heights of noticing. They’re also citizen science to help do some good.
Behold the Great Sunflower Project. You pick a sunflower (or any plant) you know. Record your time and place and count the number of pollinators who visit the flowers. Then enter your data at the project’s website. It’s that simple! And the results help scientists figure out what’s going on with the decline of bee populations. Those buggers are the ones responsible for pollinating a whole lot of food we eat. Summer peaches and watermelons? Check and check!
Similarly, through Project Budburst you pick a plant and take a good, long look. Then you report your observations. You can do it one time this month or several times over the course of a year. This data tells the team behind the project what’s going on with plant populations as seasons and climates change.
Lucky for me, California Poppies are one of the 10 most wanted plants and there’s this patch of them growing next to a sidewalk I stroll most days. I’m going to have to stop and take note!
I leave you with this quote from Shaun Tan about The Red Tree (from Lost and Found, afterword):
“…important things in life are not always immediately visible, and can’t always be named, or even fully understood. Others still are entirely imaginary—like a red tree growing suddenly in a room—although this does not make them any less real.”