The Tree and the River: An oak tree stands at a bend in the river. A child plays in its branches. A farmhouse is being built on the opposite bank. Sheep are grazing and a woman feeds her chickens. Wild deer roam among the other trees which line the banks of the river as it flows down from the mountains.
An oak tree stands at a bend in the river. Children swim in the river and play on the banks. There are several buildings on the other side with blue roofs, as well as a stone wall and a watermill. Crops are planted and harvested in the grounds of a straw building with an orange gate. People move freely between the buildings.
An oak tree stands at a bend in the river, which has now been dammed and re-routed. Horses are towing a barge up the river. On one side of the river, fortified stone buildings are guarded by figures in blue uniforms. On the other side, figures in orange stand around stand around their straw-roofed huts. There is a bridge across the river, but a closed gate prevents anyone from crossing it.
The previous three paragraphs in no way do justice to the first three double-page spreads of Aaron Becker’s wordless picture book The Tree and the River. Each turn of the page reveals a new snapshot, beautifully rendered in watercolour and ink, of a moment in human civilization featuring the same tree and the same river. We witness a war and then an industrial revolution, complete with factories, roads, railways and flying machines, before terrible floods lay waste to all that has been built.
And the oak tree? Becker shows how deeply interconnected it is with human history, how nature flourishes when humanity flourishes and vice versa. But in spite of the devastation seen midway through the book, the tree offers hope of regeneration and a second chance. As the blurb reminds us, ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow…‘
There is so much to admire in this epic picture book which rewards multiple careful re-readings in order to notice more of the details Becker has included. The buildings, vehicles and costumes do not belong to any particular culture and at times take on an otherworldly quality reminiscent of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. This unfamiliar visual vocabulary gives a universality to Becker’s story. Above all, it is good to read books for younger readers which deal seriously with environmental issues but also convey a hopeful message.
This book could be used in so many different ways in both primary and secondary schools. Its wordless form invites questions and encourages readers to construct their own narratives. It could be a great book to read and discuss with KS2 classes to see what different children notice. I would love to use this as a creative writing prompt with KS3 or even KS4 English students: they might write a description of one scene, or write from the perspective of one of the human figures on one page, or they could write as the tree or the river, describing the changes that happen around them. The book’s exploration of human civilization and the natural world connects to history, geography and science, and there is scope for some fascinating cross-curricular project work at KS2 or KS3. And children might even be inspired to create their own wordless picture books using the same time-lapse method to convey an ecological message: they will be astonished at how much can be communicated without using any words at all.
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