Five questions for Marcie Colleen and Aaron Becker

This Saturday will mark the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For children born after this tragic event in which 2,996 individuals lost their lives in New York; Washington, DC; and Pennsylvania, reading books such as Marcie Colleen and Aaron Becker’s moving tribute Survivor Tree (Little, Brown, 6–9 years) — about a Callery pear tree that survived being crushed and burned in the World Trade Center towers collapse — is an accessible way to process what happened and understand why it is important to keep discussing and remembering that day. See also Sean Rubin’s nonfiction picture book This Very Tree and Don Brown’s nonfiction graphic novel for older readers In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers, both recent, recommended books about 9/11.

1. How did you decide how much to depict explicitly about the events of 9/11, and how much to leave for teachers and other adult mediators?

Marcie Colleen: Although Survivor Tree is a 9/11 story — and I do hope it prompts questions and reflection about that day — details of who, what, when, or why weren’t my focus. I kept the heart of the text as close to the tree as possible. In doing this, I could tell a historical story with much more universality. Survivor Tree is for anyone who has ever been a part of something big and scary that left them battered, scarred, and scared to move on, but they did anyway. And after the last eighteen months, I don’t know anyone who can’t relate on some level to that.

Aaron Becker: Picture books are for the youngest of our readers, and I felt it was essential to keep the illustrations open to interpretation. That said, because Marcie’s text focuses on the tree’s perspective, it was more a matter of deciding what to show versus what not to show. I added a few subtle details, like a shadow of a plane approaching the towers on a blue-sky day. There was no question in my mind that I would not show the actual event, but instead dance around the perimeter of the imagery from that day. Artist Donna Levinstone did some amazing pastels of the smoke rising from the towers for the 9/11 Memorial. I drew inspiration from her work, as well as New York–based artist Gustavo Bonevardi, whose images of paper fluttering from the towers gave me the idea for a less graphic way of showing the tragedy.

2. Marcie, what else do you wish people knew about this tree’s story that you weren’t able to include in the text?

MC: There are several trees that have emerged as survivors of disastrous events throughout history. Like the 9/11 Survivor Tree, these trees stood brave and resilient among the ruins and became symbols of hope. An American elm is a survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing. When the 2011 tsunami ripped through Japan, a lone pine tree stood strong as a whole forest was washed away. There are also several celebrated trees that defied odds on land that was supposed to be barren of life for seventy-five years following the bombing in Hiroshima.

Because of the hope these trees bring communities, many have been propagated, including the chestnut tree that stood outside Anne Frank’s window. That chestnut is no longer alive, but its seedlings have gone on to give hope to other communities around the world that have endured tragedy, including New York City. One of the descendants of Anne Frank’s chestnut tree bravely stands near the former site of the World Trade Center.

The 9/11 Survivor Tree seedling program launched on September 11, 2013, in partnership with Bartlett Tree Experts in Stamford, Connecticut, and horticulture students at John Bowne High School in Flushing, Queens. Each year, the 9/11 Memorial gives seedlings from the Survivor Tree to communities in need of a symbol of hope and resilience. In 2020 seedlings were gifted to the Bahamas, which was devastated by Hurricane Dorian; Christchurch, New Zealand, the site of a mass shooting; and five hospitals throughout New York City’s five boroughs in honor of the healthcare workers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. Aaron, it’s solely referenced in the illustrations, so where did the idea to add in the siblings’ story come from for you?

AB: Early on, I knew we needed a human narrative in this tale. I’ve since learned that Marcie had hoped whoever illustrated her text would find a way to include one, as she knew that people belonged in this story — she just needed to focus on the tree. I think this is a case where it absolutely took the marriage of author and illustrator to tell the whole story. The siblings themselves have a rather amazing story. At first, I had just one child growing up with the tree, revisiting the memorial as an adult. At some point, it occurred to me that his story would be much stronger if he, like the tree, had suffered a loss, so I added his sister, who grows up alongside him but ultimately perishes in the towers. This is all hinted at visually, and somehow it must have been hinted at in the text as well, because only recently have I learned that Marcie wrote Survivor Tree as a response to her own sister’s battle with cancer. I had no idea, but there it is.

4. What was the hardest part of this project for you both? And also, what was the most rewarding part?

AB: The hardest part was spending a week immersing myself in the imagery of September 11th. I had never really dealt with my own trauma from that day, and I knew I couldn’t do justice to the manuscript if I didn’t take that journey. The most rewarding part was just how easily the project came together once I fully committed to it. Very little changed from my initial sketches, and this is rare in my books!

MC: Knowing that I had to “go there” emotionally in order to capture the heartbreaking beauty of this tree’s story was the hardest part. There was a lot of trauma that I was holding onto surrounding 9/11. Facing that, opening wounds, forcing myself to relive that day was terrifying. But it also prompted some much-needed healing. I’m not yet completely free of the trauma; however, telling this story has been an essential step in my healing process.

5. What gives you hope in difficult times?

MC: Nature. No matter how difficult times get, there is something very comforting in the enormity of the starry sky or the monumental stature of an ancient tree. Maybe it’s because nature makes me feel small and therefore my human struggles shrink in its presence. Maybe it’s because nature bears witness to our lives and promises us that it will remain when we are long gone. When we lost my dad to COVID this past February, my husband and I were compelled to drive to the ocean. Something about standing there, listening to the rhythmic, ceaseless waves made me feel at peace. It comforted me, telling me I am not the first to grieve in this way and certainly not the last. Nature connects humans through time. It’s that steadfast connection which I am drawn to.

AB: Human kindness. It’s where I place my faith, for better or worse.

From the September 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Shoshana Flax and Cynthia K. Ritter

Cynthia K. Ritter is managing editor of The Horn Book, Inc. Shoshana Flax is associate editor of The Horn Book Magazine.

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