This Very Tree – a story of hope and resilience following 9/11

Lynn: This Very TreeLike so many adults, the memory of that day in September 2001 is harshly strong. And like many of us, I find it difficult to talk about the enormity of the experience to children. I’ve approached the growing number of picture books on the subject with mixed feelings. Sean Rubin’s new picture book. This Very Tree: A Story of 9/11, Resilience and Regrowth (Henry Holt, 2021) doesn’t try to explain the event. Instead he takes the event as a given and focuses instead on the strength, determination and resilience of the people of New York City and America to restore their city.

He does so by using the voice and perspective of the very real Callery Pear tree that stood by itself in the World Trade Center Plaza. Planted in the 1970’s the tree heralded spring each year with early blossoms and provided welcoming shade. Rubin addresses the issue of the attack with these simple sentences, “It was an ordinary morning. Until it wasn’t.” The peaceful green scene is replaced by a series of dark and angular panels that gradually lighten with a view up to light and firefighter faces looking down. No explanations are used here but the sense of something dark and catastrophic is clear.

The tree itself was seriously injured, with broken limbs, roots snapped, and branches burned. The tree relates how it was transplanted and gradually began to regrow. The New York Dept. of Parks tended the tree carefully for 9 years before it was finally returned to the Memorial Plaza where it now thrives among over 300 other trees. Called the Survivor Tree, the pages chronicling the healing and regrowth of the tree itself and the city are full of green life and a hopeful spirit. And I dare you to read them without tearing up! Yes, this is a story of 9/11 but it is also a story of resilience and hope and coming together and perhaps this is what we all need right now.

Cindy: Trauma and recovery are serious subjects for picture books, but so many children have experienced big and little traumas that even if they are too young to understand the world-changing event that was the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there is a healing story here that may help them. There is plenty for adults here, too, including the opening poem by E.B. White from Here is New York, that ends with the titular line, “This very tree.” Rubin’s art illustrates not only the storyline but the emotional path from trauma to recovery and hope. Along the way are lots of details of city life, construction equipment, and pockets of nature for young readers to explore. 

An author’s note explains how Rubin came to tackle this difficult story with its survivor tree, and a double page spread gives a brief history of  the World Trade Center, 9/11, and the Survivor Tree for older readers. Many tiny details (such as using the same typefaces as those used on the cornerstone of the One World Trade Center) make this a lovely tribute to New York City, its people, and to hope.

Stories That Need to Be Told – Picture Books Take Up the Challenge

Lynn and Cindy: One of the things we love about picture books is that authors and illustrators often take up the challenge of bringing a little known story to young readers. It is so important to keep our history and our stories alive! As reviewers, we also love that we get the benefit of these stories too. Here are two new picture books that do this important work—and do it wonderfully.

Lynn: Decades before Rosa Park refused to sit in the back of a bus, another brave determined woman demanded her rights on a streetcar in New York. Beth Anderson tells her inspiring story in Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, 2020). It was 1854 in New York City and Elizabeth Jenkins, a teacher and organist from a wealthy family, was on her way to church. When the horse-drawn streetcar arrived it had empty seats and Lizzie and her friend hurried to board. But the conductor would not allow them on, telling them to wait for the car for “her people.” Lizzie had no intention of waiting. There was no law keeping anyone of color from riding the streetcars although there was a custom of not riding if a white passenger objected. When no one on board objected, Lizzie persisted and the conductor physically threw them from the car. Lizzie, whose family were leaders in their community and well connected, took the Third Avenue Streetcar company to court where, with her attorney Chester A. Arthur, she won her case, paving the way for people of color to fight for their rights to ride then and in the future.

The text is wonderful, lively, and compelling and I’m truly sorry it has taken me so long to learn about Elizabeth Jennings. The author notes that the “dialogue closely follows her account as it appeared in the newspapers of the time,” and this gives the story a very immediate and personal feel that will appeal to kids. The back matter is outstanding too with fascinating additional historical material on Elizabeth Jennings and her case in an Author’s Note, information on the research. a bibliography, a list of further readings, and a Note from the Illustrator.

And speaking of illustrators! I am a big admirer of E.B. Lewis’s illustrations and here they add wonderfully to the overall impact of the story. Lewis, who usually uses a muted palette, chose intense colors and the result is a wonderful sense of the drama of the event. In an artist’s note, Lewis says, “I wanted to go all out in the way of color—to stretch my own internal prism.” He even had to purchase colors he had never used before. I’m so glad he did as the result is beautiful and effective!

Once again a picture book has introduced me to a memorable and important historical person that I had never heard of before. I’m beginning to think that we should give up textbooks and flood our classrooms with shelves of outstanding nonfiction picture books!

Cindy: Another African American girl who took an important seat is featured in A Ride to Remember (Abrams, 2020) by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan. Occasional peaceful protests at the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore, Maryland were held for a decade asking for the right for people of color to visit the park. Nothing changed. But after new segregation laws were passed in Baltimore in 1962, a big protest was planned at the park for Independence Day, July 4, 1963. Arrests were made but the protest continued a few days later. When pressure mounted as the publicity surrounding the protests spread, change finally occurred and the park officials corrected their policy. On August 28, 1963, the park was opened to everyone. Sharon Langley’s parents bought tickets and they were the first family of color to walk through the gates. Sharon was photographed riding a horse on the carousel, a photo that ended up in the newspapers the next day. The carousel is now turning its circles on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and Sharon Langley’s name is on a horse’s saddle and horseshoe.

Co-author Amy Nathan wrote a book for teens and adults Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement that also includes the other historic event of 8-28-63, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. Award-winning illustrator Floyd Cooper’ artwork helps tell this important story in moving paintings.