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The Tree Lady

tree-ladyA few weeks ago we put out a call for titles we might have missed, and Ed Wolfer recommended this book. It’s a complete coincidence — scouts’ honor — but the timing of this post coincides with a blizzard here in New England. The warm colors and desert world evoked in this inspiring picture book biography are a welcome contrast to the unrelievedly white world outside my window. You’ll hear no complaints from me about spending time with naturalist/scientist/activist Katherine Olivia Sessions (1857 – 1940) in warm, dry southern California. “Most San Diegans didn’t think trees could ever grow there. / But Kate did.”

There are several striking things about H. Joseph Hopkins’s The Tree Lady, with illustrations by Jill McElmurry. The first is definitely the arresting cover. Wow. Just wow. The colors, the treetop perspective, the dramatic composition — all combine for a spectacular first impression.

The second notable thing is the book’s similarities to Miss Rumphius. Which are deliberate, without doubt. This is an homage; a translation; a West Coast companion to Cooney’s Maine-set classic. Not an imitation, to my mind. The palette, distinct and localized, sets it apart. Browns, greens, and tans in various but always natural earth tones combine and contrast to form first spare and then lush landscapes as the tree-planting Kate Sessions transforms the city of San Diego.

I have a few reservations about The Tree Lady in terms of Caldecott recognition. One is a spread where the text doesn’t quite fit with the art (the one where city leaders are planning the 1915 Panama — California Exposition. The text says that Kate felt Balboa Park needed more trees, but the art shows the city leaders themselves calling for more trees, and Kate is nowhere in sight). Another is more general, and perhaps unfair. Unfair because the art is beautiful, and suited to the subject, and nicely embellished with scientific, educational spot art. But one might also call it sedate, and this year I’m not sure it can stand up to the sheer energy of books like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild or Journey or Locomotive or Nino Wrestles the World or Mr. Wuffles! or (if we only want to compare it to other picture book biographies) A Beam of Light.

Am I wrong? I do like this book a great deal. Talk me into it!





Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I totally forgot about this one. I don’t have a copy here, but I read it at the bookstore or library. The one thing I remember about it is how I had never heard of Olivia Sessions and I thought this was a grand introduction to this important woman. I thought the illustrations were spot on, capturing the dry brown landscape that is such an important part of California. (My son, when I call the landscape brown, says, “We prefer to call it golden.”) You have made me want to go and take a second look. Thanks, Martha….and stay safe.

  2. Thanks for this! You may not believe me but I never once thought about Miss Rumphius while I was working on the art for this book. Only later, when people kept referring to it did I see the connections. I love Miss Rumphius and I love Barbara Cooney but I was completely absorbed by the reference material from the San Diego History Center and wanted to use a “sedate” style that I felt fit Kate Sessions time period.

  3. PS. Thank you Ed Wolfer!

  4. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Jill McElmurry, thank you so much for this insight into the making of The Tree Lady. That’s amazing! And as I (hope I) said, the colors and specific evocation of place and time makes this book an entirely original and worthy companion to Miss Rumphius — even though you didn’t set out to make it one.

  5. I couldn’t be in better company. Thank you!

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