The Tree and the River

In this work of speculative fiction, Aaron Becker crafts an innovative wordless picture book that follows the life of a tree as it grows in a verdant valley next to a small river. Over several centuries, the tree witnesses the development of human civilizations from farm to village and then from village to town along the banks of the river. Humans transform the landscape, and futuristic technology and industrialization eventually arrive as the tree remains a silent observer of all the modifications. Tragically, a great flood comes and decimates the valley, leaving only ruins from the once-thriving community. The tree, barely alive after the catastrophe, produces a few acorns. One of those acorns drops into the river, floats downriver, and takes root and grows, thereby restarting the cycle of life once again.

Becker illustrates this imaginative story with pencil, gouache, and digital paint and through assiduous attention to detail. Readers will wonder at the images and will linger on those pages as they compare and contrast the illustrations from earlier in the book. So much changes on the banks of the river and yet so much also remains the same as Becker captures the passage of time through subtle as well as dramatic variations to the setting. This book begs to be read over and over again. Becker also excels with his symbolic use of color and light, especially in the dramatic scenes set at night. The images found on these pages will surely inspire the imaginations of many readers.

Is The Tree and the River "distinguished"? Absolutely. Indeed, I believe it meets all five of the selection criteria for the Caldecott. However, Becker’s wordless picture book best fulfills criterion #2: Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept. That The Tree and the River is able to tell such a complex and meaningful story only through the use of images speaks volumes to the talents of its artist. Becker’s illustrations reveal to us that while human civilizations may come and go, we can find hope — even in the face of disaster — in the natural world. Life will go on.

Becker’s magnificent Journey won a well-deserved Caldecott Honor in 2014. Will the members of the Caldecott committee recognize The Tree and the River ten years later? Time will tell, but there is no doubt that this book is a major contender.

[Read The Horn Book Magazine review of The Tree and the River]

Scot Smith

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

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