Review of Big Tree

Big TreeBig Tree
by Brian Selznick; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School    Scholastic    528 pp.
4/23    9781338180633    $32.99

Selznick elegantly intertwines pictures and words to tell the macro story of the natural world through the micro perspective of two sycamore seeds. Louise and Merwin are siblings who occupy the same seed ball but possess two distinct personalities. Louise is a starry-eyed dreamer, while Merwin is a pragmatist. When a stampede of dinosaurs forces the siblings’ benevolent tree mother to disperse her seeds before they are trampled, a multi-millennial saga begins. Plant and plant-adjacent organisms are personified, often possessing personalities reflective of their roles in nature—for example, mushrooms serve as communicative “Ambassadors” in the book the way actual mycorrhizal fungi connect forest root systems. Louise and Merwin encounter a range of ancient flora and fauna as they themselves work to “put down roots.” A massive time jump to the present day, along with a stunning portrayal of the planet’s formation (from Earth’s perspective), reveals the true ­meaning of Louise and Merwin’s journey: that life is a gift, fragile and in need of care and protection. Selznick’s control of narrative, pacing, and book design is idiosyncratic and masterful. Fluid shifts between prose and double-page spreads of accomplished pencil illustrations are clear and effective, ranging from entire chapters in prose to passages alternating between text and image with every page-turn to sustained sequences of images. The afterword includes annotated notes on the real science found throughout, a selected biography, and backstory on the book’s origin (it was originally conceived as a screenplay for a Spielberg film). Ambitious and poignant while still, ultimately, ­hopeful.

From the May/June 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Patrick Gall
Patrick Gall works as a librarian for children in preschool through eighth grade at the Catherine Cook School in Chicago.

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