Survivor Tree and This Very Tree: A Look at Two 9/11 Picture Books

We have seen numerous books about 9/11 published in 2021, 20 years after that tragic event. Included among those titles are two outstanding picture books about what is known as the Survivor Tree, the Callery pear tree that was buried underneath the rubble of the World Trade Center and nursed back to health. That tree, very much alive today, is now part of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.

As a school librarian, I teach my fifth graders lessons on how to compare and contrast similar stories. I hope to put the concepts of those lessons to good use as I delve into Survivor Tree, written by Marcie Colleen and illustrated by Aaron Becker, and This Very Tree by Sean Rubin.

Let’s start with Survivor Tree. Becker, who won a Caldecott Honor for Journey, creates pitch-perfect artwork to match Colleen’s spare but evocative text. Rendered with watercolors and colored pencil, Becker’s illustrations follow the tree’s life as it grows and changes colors through the different seasons. Colleen and Becker then depict with words and images what happened to the pear tree after the Towers fell — how it was discovered amongst the rubble, removed and taken to a nursery, and carefully nurtured back to strength for almost ten years before it was transplanted again as part of the 9/11 Memorial.

The book is tall and thin, just like a tower, or a tree, and it's the perfect shape for capturing the essence of this story. What really stands out is Becker’s story within the story, a powerful narrative careless readers might miss if they are not attentive to the illustrations. We follow a family with young children as they grow up with the tree. A brother and sister are seen playing in the leaves and blossoms and taking snapshots in different seasons and at different ages. In one scene, we see the sister, now a young woman, dressed for work and (we assume) headed for one of the Twin Towers. Then a plane strikes one of the Towers. Amidst all the smoke and dust, we see photographs of the family float down from above. The sister was killed in the attack. 

Did I have to pause and wipe away a few tears? You bet I did. After the tree is transplanted, the brother — now a father — visits the Memorial with his family and with a photograph of his sister in his pocket. He and his young daughter place a rose on his sister’s name at the Memorial and then visit the tree. Even more tears. And that’s okay. 

Sean Rubin’s This Very Tree tells the same story but from a distinct point of view and with a different illustrative style. In his book, the tree serves as the narrator. For me, that first-person point of view is the ideal way to describe the traumatic events of 9/11 to young children. Delicate line drawings, muted watercolors, exquisite panel work, and a variety of different perspectives bring the Survivor Tree and its regrowth and resiliency to life in an age-appropriate fashion.

Of particular note is Rubin’s use of panels. (Rubin was nominated for an Eisner Award for his graphic novel Bolivar, and his skills as a sequential artist are on full display here.) His sequential art tells the story of the attacks on the World Trade Center; few words are needed. Several pages later, he uses a series of eight panels to show how the tree is recovering at the same time as the city is rebuilding. It's a brilliant use of design. Also exceptional is Rubin’s palette. We would expect a picture book about a Callery pear tree throughout the seasons to make great use of color, and it's fascinating to see how Rubin pulls it off. The colors serve as symbols that set the tone for the story and its themes. The darks are dark for a reason, while the different hues of green offer the hope of rebirth. Perhaps the best example of how Rubin employs color is the illustration of the doves that nested in the tree’s branches during its first spring in the nursery. The colors are quiet and gentle, the ideal choices for this image. And the text on book’s last page reads: “and who sees my flowers / knows that spring will come.” Rubin captures that radiant hope of spring with the Survivor Tree in magnificent full bloom, brilliant white blossoms on display. What a terrific image to bring this eloquent picture book to a close.

Both books have much merit and check off many boxes on the Caldecott’s list of criteria, and both books excel as examples of “excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.” To write and illustrate about 9/11 in a manner that children can understand and appreciate is no easy task. After reading these stories, readers will come away with a sense of hope and optimism for a better future, even if a few tears might be shed along the way.

Mordicai Gerstein won the 2004 Caldecott Medal for The Man Who Walked between the Towers. Will the 2022 Caldecott committee select another title about 9/11 and the World Trade Center? This Very Tree and Survivor Tree are strong contenders.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine reviews of This Very Tree and Survivor Tree here.]

Scot Smith

Scot Smith is the librarian at Robertsville Middle School in Oak Ridge, TN. He served on the 2018 Printz Award Jury for YALSA and has been reading for the Schneider Family Book Award for the past three years. He also teaches courses in Young Adult Literature and Graphic Novels for the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tennessee.

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Allison Khoury

allisongroverkhoury@gmail.com Really good review. I like that you reviewed both books, they both sound so good. Thank you.

Posted : Oct 23, 2021 10:28


Susan Hess

Fabulous Reviews. Can’t wait to read these books.

Posted : Oct 20, 2021 09:31


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