Written by Paul Czajak and illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh, The Book Tree reads like a love letter to books in all their sensual glory. Czajak lingers on descriptions of the scent and sound of books as his story of a tyrant’s failed attempt to destroy all books, and a boy’s desire to awe and be awed by stories, unfolds. Kheiriyeh’s textured illustrations complement Czajak’s story and enchant with a bold and deliberate color palatte of red and teal with hints of yellow. Each illustration contains elements at once familiar and unfamiliar: teakettles precariously balanced on heads, oversized dandelion puffs blowing boys away, and regal ladies unsure how to use umbrellas. A story about pleasure, passion, and wayward pages, The Book Tree manages to be both timely and timeless.
The story begins: “Nested in the branches of a tree,/ Arlo opened his book and breathed in./ Beginnings were always the best part./ They smelled as if anything were possible.” The vibrancy of the town center is reflected in a two-page spread that captures newspaper readers, keyboard players, bicyclists, motorists, and one rushing mayor. On the next two-page spread the word “BONK!” serves as a soundtrack to the image of the star of the story’s book hitting the mayor on the head. Although the protagonist, Arlo, quickly apologizes, the mayor decides to outlaw books. He argues that they plant seeds that grow into ideas and asserts that he will tell everyone what to think. The mayor then parades through town blissfully tearing up books as Arlo trails behind him. One lone page flies loose and Arlo chases after it until “the muddy earth swallowed it.”
The book void is felt in schools, theaters, and libraries where, without stories, scripts, and recipes, the town loses its vitality. In a sparse two-page spread Arlo cries over the spot where the mud ate up the last page: “He missed the crack and creak of a book’s spine the first time you open it.” He absently traces the words “the end” in the dirt. The act of writing snowballs and an excited Arlo begins spinning tall tales that he starts to read aloud to passersby. Although he is ignored by his fellow citizens his words nourish the page planted underground and it sprouts. The sprout grows into a tree heavy with books and the townspeople’s love of reading is rekindled.
Coincidentally, the mayor is hit in the head by another book, a loud “BONK” reverberating across the page. This time, the mayor reacts differently. Although he initially demands the tree be cut down, he quickly grows to enjoy the tasty meals, cleaver theater performances, and creative stories that books encourage and that the good life demands. The book ends with Arlo and the mayor smiling as they hold a book between them.
Writer and illustrator are brilliantly paired in this delightful story that foregrounds the importance of creativity in community building and world-making. Without the Arts there is little to enjoy. Czajak paints a grim picture of a world lacking delicious cuisine to consume, clever plays to delight in, and books to lose or find oneself in. Although it is a world you can get used to, and the townspeople do, at first ignoring Arlo’s stories, it is not a world anyone would choose; and, like Arlo, we do have a choice.
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