A boy named Arlo gets so wrapped up in his book that he doesn’t catch it in time when it slips, falls, and thumps the mayor on the head, prompting the official to tear up all the books, telling the people that “I will tell you what you need to know”. Luckily, a single page manages to float away and plant itself in the earth, where it will eventually grow; in the meantime, though, life is pretty awful without books: schools have nothing to teach; actors have nothing to act; and story time becomes nap time, because there’s nothing to read. Arlo begins making up his own stories, which feed the fledgling book plant, so Arlo writes and reads to the plant until it grows into a fantastic book tree, yielding ripe new stories, which Arlo harvests and shares with the town, which blossoms, once again, thanks to the fresh infusion of knowledge. Even the mayor ultimately discovers the joy to be found in a book.
Talk about a timely story. With an autocrat who’s afraid of books (“Books are dangerous! I don’t trust them. They act like seeds, which grow into ideas, and ideas turn into questions.”) and tries to control the flow of knowledge, reading becomes the ultimate act of resistance. The Book Tree also illustrates a very gloomy life without stories: no storytimes; no theatres; no new learning. Taking away the written word takes away a culture, a history, a civilization – why else are libraries and archives deliberately targeted during times of war?
Paul Czajak also shows how quickly people can lose interest in reading if it isn’t nurtured: Arlo reads his original stories out loud to an ignorant populace. Thanks to Arlo’s determination, the buried page hears him and thrives; he nurtures the love of reading, the new ideas feeding the plant, until it blossoms – and finally, boredom brings readers back to the tree, where Arlo hands out more books, sparking the public’s interest again. The Book Tree eloquently captures society today, making it a cautionary tale as much as it’s an inspirational one. Rashin Kheiriyeh’s oil paint and collage artwork gives a lovely crispness to the work, and brings the books to life by making them stand out against the page. Arlo, with his little beret and blue hair, is a little counterculture activist for a new group of readers. Her collage and drawn artwork present a fantastic contrast, really letting the stories yet to be told flow from books and Arlo’s imagination. I particularly love the dragon emerging from a book in her tree, seeming to joyfully respond to Arlo’s narrative.
Paul Czajak’s Monster books have been a favorite on my library shelves for a couple of years; I’m looking forward to seeing the kids enjoy The Book Tree. Add this one to your activist collections, and make sure to stick this one on your Banned Books Week storytime for next year.