Reviews /

Big Tree

Authored by Brian Selznick
Illustrated by Brian Selznick
Published by Scholastic

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Big Tree: Brian Selznick, best-known for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, has written and illustrated a captivating, mind-expanding epic about the natural world, told from the perspective of two Sycamore seeds. Big Tree follows Louise and her brother Merwin (named after American poet and conservationist W. S. Merwin) after they are separated from their Mama who tells them to ‘fly through the air as if you had wings. And then you’ll find a safe place to put down your roots’. Their odyssey takes in a variety of strange encounters, including those with King Seaweed, Spot the butterfly and a Terrible Volcano, before Merwin finally learns how to listen to the voice that Louise has been hearing.

The story is told both through words and pencil drawings, the latter helping us to see the world from a seed’s perspective – at times they are blurred and instinct, and at others we are given gloriously detailed close-ups – of seed-pods, or the inside of a seashell, or a butterfly’s wing. Some of the most effective illustrations are when we are shown parts of a whole over successive double-page spreads, for instance a dinosaur, and we only gradually realise what is being depicted, mirroring the seeds’ limited field of vision – but perhaps also making us reflect on the limitations of our own perspectives.

Selznick’s language is simple but evocative, with some beautifully poetic descriptions, such as when a decaying leaf tells Louise and Merwin, ‘We collect sunlight and nutrients for the trees, but when we’ve done our work, we are called away. We turn gold and red and orange, like the sunset, as we say goodbye to our trees’. The structure and writing style of Big Tree frequently reminded me of The Little Prince, as the innocence of the language belies the depth and wisdom of many of Louise and Merwin’s encounters. As becomes apparent, Selznick is writing about cataclysmic events which have devastating consequences for all life on earth, but he offers a profoundly hopeful and timely message about nature’s resilience, and the importance of listening to what nature is telling us. As the voice tells Merwin, ‘No matter how unstoppable the danger seems, no matter how unavoidable, there’s always something you can do’.

This extraordinary book would be enjoyed by older primary students upwards – because of the universal nature of the story and the way that it transcends genre conventions, I think it is a book without any upper age limit. There are obviously lots of ways teachers could link this to the science curriculum: Selznick’s Afterword includes fascinating scientific notes explaining the science behind the story and further demonstrating his detailed and imaginative engagement with the research, such as the way that different species within a forest communicate to help each other survive (represented by the fungal ‘Ambassadors’ who warn the trees of impending disaster) or the role of Foraminifera, referred to as ‘Scientists’ in the book, who capture carbon dioxide and help us to understand climate change and the history of life on earth. Every reader can learn something from reading this book, and I believe every reader will be touched by Louise and Merwin’s story.