Do you consider yourself a tree-hugger? A tree lover? I wouldn't have called myself a tree lover previously, but I would have said that I could certainly recognize their importance in our environment. After all, trees can be their very own ecosystem. And having grown up in California, I also would have guessed that one of the largest trees in the world would be located in Redwood National Park. But reading this book made me realize that I just didn't know that much about trees in general. And like any good nonfiction book, it made me want to learn more.
Celebritrees was a nominee for the Cybils award for nonfiction picture books. Preus is an award-winning author, having won a Newbery Honor award last year for her 2010 novel, Heart of a Samurai. So before I even opened this book, I had the expectation that this was going to be a well-done, interesting book. And it definitely did not disappoint. Preus looks at fourteen famous trees. Can you believe that there are fourteen trees that are famous for their height, age or some other trait? It is truly incredible and the stories Preus tells here are just as fascinating as the trees themselves.
She begins by looking at trees in general in the introduction. The introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book, and this one is very reader-friendly. She uses tidbits of information to draw readers into the main text of the book. Did you know that treetops have held orchestras or party houses? Did you know that the seeds of the American Revolution were sown under a tree? Unfortunately, this is all you get to know about these little tidbits, as they aren't included in the main text, but this is a great jumping-off point for interested readers. Trees can also be culturally important, and Preus shows just how important some of them are to countries around the world.
Each of these trees is showcased on its own double-page spread. She uses a combination of facts and a more narrative style of informational text to get readers engaged. The facts include the type of tree along with its general location (more on that later). Then Preus tells more of the tree's story in a few short paragraphs. For instance, the Major Oak is located in Sherwood Forest. There is an enormous hollow in the tree that is the stuff of legend. Robin Hood and his Merry Men were believed to have hidden within that hollow. However, Preus continues on to mention that visitors compacted the soil and starved the roots, almost killing the tree. She also describes the tree today as "a miniature nature preserve" which provides food and shelter for animals, birds and insects.
There are so many interesting trees described here. I was really surprised by some of the facts that Preus includes in this text. I mentioned that many trees are only given general locations within the text. Preus explains to readers that many of the most majestic trees' exact locations are kept secret to protect the trees. Some of them need to be protected to maintain their root structures, like the Major Oak. Others need to protected from vandals, or to keep their fragile trunks intact. I had never known this before, and thought this was an example of the kind of information that keeps readers interested in this book.
This leads to my biggest concern about the illustrations. Gibbon does a great job illustrating these trees. But I can't help but wonder if these trees would have been better illustrated by photographs. With photographs, readers might have been able to see these trees in their own environment. They might also be able to see the finer details of the leaves if close-ups were used. That being said, I do understand why their obscured locations probably made it impossible to obtain photos of these trees. And Gibbon's illustrations have some definite advantages too. Hyperion, a 379 foot tall redwood, is shown next to both a skyscraper and the Statue of Liberty. This gives readers a visual measurement to go along with the written description. It's very effective to see that redwood, strong and tall, towering over one of our country's greatest symbols. The General Sherman, which Preus describes as "so wide that twelve people standing with their arms outstretched can't reach all the way around its trunk." And Gibbon is able to show those same twelve people, dwarfed by the enormous tree, stretching their arms in vain.
There is strong back matter to accompany this great text. Preus includes four pages of additional information about all of the trees. This is really valuable, as it expands on some of the things she mentions in the main text. She includes comparisons to other types of trees as well. She compares the enormous Hyperion to the arctic birch, which can only grow to ten inches tall because of the extreme weather. There is also a list of suggestions for readers on how to help grow celebritrees. These are primarily environmental suggestions, but they are worth reminding readers about. Did you know you shouldn't take firewood with you when you are camping? It may have tree devouring beetles in it which might destroy the trees around your campfire. I had no idea! There is also a bibliography and a list of websites too.
This is a really unusual book. It made me look at trees in a whole new light, and it may even have made me into a tree lover. Plus it inspired me to try and plan some trips to visit the celebritrees here in the United States. Preus and Gibbon did a terrific job bringing this subject to life.
Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book. It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.
Celebritrees: Historic & Famous Trees of the World. Margi Preus; illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon. Henry Holt & Co, 2011.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library