The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Marcie Colleen and Review of Survivor Tree
Marcie Colleen is a former classroom teacher turned children’s book author. She is an expert on creating highly acclaimed Teacher’s Guides that align picture books and middle grade novels with the Common Core and state mandated standards. She is also a frequent presenter at conferences for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, as well as a faculty member for the Writing Barn and the University of California San Diego Extension.
Her educational work in children’s literature has been recognized by School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Children’s Book Council. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Education of English and Language Arts from Oswego State University and a master’s degree in Educational Theater from New York University. Although she will always be a Brooklynite at heart, Marcie lives in San Diego, California with her husband—artist Jonathan Lopes.
Marcie is the award winning author of The Super Happy Party Bears chapter book series with Macmillan, as well as picture books, Love, Triangle, illustrated by Bob Shea (HarperCollins), Penguinaut!, illustrated by Emma Yarlett (Scholastic) and The Bear's Garden, illustrated by Alison Oliver (Macmillan).
Her newest picture book, Survivor Tree illustrated by Caldecott Honor Winner Aaron Becker (Little, Brown), released yesterday!
Welcome Marcie, it is so great to get to talk with you.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate? )
I have been writing with the goal of publication for almost ten years. And although my writing routine has changed a lot through the years, I currently write from 5 to 7 am Monday through Friday. I love the feeling of getting up and being creative right away before for the rest of the world needs attention. My favorite spot to write is on my couch next to a window where I can smell early-morning ocean breezes all year round. As for my favorite type of book to write, I love humorous books; books about community and people coming together for a common cause; and books that tug at the heart strings. Bonus if the book does all of the above!
That sounds like a glorious spot for writing! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Even though I am a performer and a teacher and I love public speaking, I have a lot of social anxiety. Large groups or events can be intimidating to me. I often get really overwhelmed and clam up due to insecurity. I am much better in smaller groups or one-on-one.
What was the inspiration for Survivor Tree?
Well, seeing as Survivor Tree is a nonfiction story, my inspiration comes from the actual tree’s story. But it’s not good enough to merely retell the story. I needed to figure out how to tell the story. What struck me the most about Callery pear trees—the kind of tree that the 9/11 Survivor Tree is—is their brilliant seasonal display: white flowers in spring, green leaves in summer, and bright red heart-shaped leaves in the fall before they lose their leaves and start over again. This cyclical beauty would be my inspiration for the book—a reminder that even after a tragedy life goes on and beauty persists.
I love that the cycle of the tree inspired and shaped the story. Do you think there is a common thread in your books?
I love to write stories about someone or something small that does the unthinkable. In Penguinaut!, Orville the penguin is small but wants to have big adventures like all his big friends so he sets his sights on the moon. The Bear’s Garden is about a young city girl with a big imagination who sees beauty everywhere and ends up inspiring a community garden. And, of course, Survivor Tree is about a tree who defied all odds to flourish after 9/11 and serve as a symbol of hope and resilience for all of us.
That's a great thread. As your first nonfiction picture book, was Survivor Tree harder to write than your other books? What is the hardest or most challenging part of writing Survivor Tree?
What made Survivor Tree a bit more challenging to write was my own personal processing or lack of processing regarding the events of 9/11. In fact, there were times when it felt too emotionally draining to “go there” and I questioned if I possessed what was needed to write this story well. But what kept me going was knowing that part of my processing would come from the act of writing this story and focusing on the themes of resilience, hope, and beauty. I can’t say I’ve fully processed 9/11, but I have grown and worked through a lot. And for that I am thankful that I stuck by the challenge.
I was so impressed that you were able to write this and do so honestly, but gently. How many drafts did it take from first draft to publication? How long did it take for you to get the succinctness and emotional resonance of 9-11 right?
Survivor Tree went through eight drafts before it was ready to send out on submission to potential publishers. And although eight drafts seems light, I struggled. I knew right away that I wanted to write in a sparse and lyrical style. It just felt like the story called for that kind of storytelling. But I was not familiar with writing in that way, so it took me awhile to find the poetry in my writing. I had to learn to trust my lyrical voice and not simply try to emulate others. As for getting “9/11 right,” I’m not sure I did. The events of that day are still very upsetting to me. In fact, I debated whether or not this was my story to tell and whether I had what it took to do it justice. I hesitated to put myself in a position to have to process the events in a way I had yet to, even over a decade later. It felt too painful. But I knew that I needed to “go there” emotionally in order to be able to convey the story authentically. I allowed myself to relive the day through research and finally, I found an artist on Spotify—The Library Tapes—who’s music really evoked it all for me. So for my writing sessions, I used this music to connect to the emotion in a safe way.
Not only do I think you were the "right" person to tell this story, I think you needed to tell it; to start your own deeper healing. You’ve written fiction and nonfiction picture books and chapter books. Do you have a preference or do you enjoy stretching the different “muscles” that each one uses?
I am a lover of story. There are so many different forms for storytelling and truthfully, I love experimenting with them all. In fact, I am currently writing comics and graphic novels and loving that format, too! What can I say? I never want to stop stretching and learning.
I can't wait to see what you explore and create next. Is there something you want your readers to know about Survivor Tree?
Two fellow students who lived on my dorm floor Freshman year at SUNY Oswego in Oswego, NY died in the World Trade Center towers: Melissa Renee Vincent and Scott D. Bart. Each time I have visited the 9/11 Memorial for research I would leave a yellow rose at both of their names. When Aaron Becker was creating the artwork for the Survivor Tree jacket, he reached out to me and asked about Melissa and Scott. As a tribute, he has included a bit of both of their names in the artwork on the back jacket. I was so absolutely touched that they would both be memorialized in this way.
Oh my gosh, what a touching thing for Aaron to do and a special bit of information for us to know. Thank you for sharing that. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?
Some of my favorite books when I was a child were: Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina, the Curious George books, and anything by Richard Scarry. I loved spunky characters who didn’t always do the right thing and illustrations packed with so much story I could pore over them for hours.
When you first got to see Aaron Becker’s illustrations did anything surprise you? Did you expect him to create the story of the boy who grew with and remembered the tree? Or was that entirely his contribution? What is your favorite spread?
As I was developing the manuscript for Survivor Tree there were some who I shared it with who would ask “where are the people?” And although I did not want to focus on people in the text, I knew that the illustrator would probably want to connect a human story to the story of the tree. At least that is what I hoped. Of course, Aaron Becker is spectacularly skilled in wordless storytelling. His own Journey was a Caldecott Honor Book in 2013. He beautifully created this parallel story of a brother and a sister who grew up with the tree. We see the sister go off into the “real world” and later see a photo of the two in the debris on 9/11. It can be concluded that the sister worked and died in the towers. The brother, once grown, visits the tree at the memorial with his own family to honor his sister’s memory. It’s such a touching story and was one hundred percent created by Aaron Becker.
Text © Marcie Colleen, 2021. Image © Aaron Becker, 2021.
My favorite spread would be the heartbreaking quiet of the moment right before the first tower is hit. The simple text against a perfect blue sky. It gets me every time.
That is such a powerful image. Especially for those who lived through it and know what's coming. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child, now as a writer, or both.)
My husband. Not only is he my biggest champion and cheerleader (and even a shoulder to cry at times), he is also an incredible artist in his own right using the medium of LEGO bricks. His constant drive and creative energy fuel me daily. You can check out more about his work at www.jonathanlopes.com and on IG at @jonathanlopesofficial.
You have to check out his site and his book - New York City Brick by Brick: The Art of LEGO Construction. His creation of Grand Central Station with Legos is totally amazing! How are you, or have you been, staying creative these days? What are you doing to “prime the well”?
Well, as far as writing is concerned, I get up every morning at 5 am to work on my writing projects. That way I know I am constantly moving the needle forward on those projects without the rest of life’s craziness getting in the way. But beyond, writing, I am a firm believer in refilling the well through engagement with other forms of creative expression, too. So pretty much every day I find at least 30 minutes to play the ukulele and sing. I am obsessed with taking online classes and learning really fun pop songs. And honestly, even if I had a really terrible day, a few strums melts it all away.
Music is a pretty amazing healer. I hope to hear you play in person one day. Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
For the past year I have been doing some writing with Epic! Originals for release on their digital reading app (www.getepic.com) I am super excited that my debut comic released this summer—a Cat Ninja Tale set in the highly-acclaimed Cat Ninja Universe. And now I am currently head writer for another series from the Cat Ninja world called Time Buddies. The series features the beloved superhero owlet Hoot on a time-travel adventure with her new friend, Bentley. Additionally, I have written a brand-new chapter book series for Epic! Originals based on their ever-popular My Pet Slime series called My Pet Slime: DIY Diaries. Both series will launch on the Epic! site in early 2022.
This sounds so interesting. I'll have to keep my eyes open for these series. Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or one that you are especially enamored with. Why?
Penguins. They are just adorably awkward and they make me smile. Luckily, I live a little over a mile from the San Diego Zoo and can visit the penguins whenever I need a ‘pick me up.’
Thank you Marcie for share with us a bit about yourself and your newest picture book.
To find out more about Marcie Colleen:
Review of Survivor Tree
When Marcie first told me about this book during one of her classes, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. I love slightly unusual nonfiction, and telling the history of the tragedy and pain of September 11, 2001, through the viewpoint of a tree that not only survived, but proved remarkably resilient, intrigued me. I was not disappointed. Marcie is a masterful storyteller and Aaron Becker is a genius.
Author: Marcie Colleen
Illustrator: Aaron Becker
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (2021)
Resilience, tragedy, loss, healing, and community.
This hopeful story of a resilient tree that grew (and still grows) at the base of the twin towers is a simple introduction for young readers to gain an understanding of September 11th and the impact it had on America. One September day, the perfect blue sky exploded. Dust billowed. Buildings crumbled. And underneath it all, a tree sprouted green leaves in its distress. Pulled from the wreckage, the tree saw many seasons pass as it slowly recovered far away from home. Until one day, forever scarred and forever stronger, it was replanted at the 9/11 Memorial. This story of the real Survivor Tree uses nature's cycle of colors to reflect on the hope and healing that come after a tragedy—and assures readers of their own remarkable resilience.
A TREE STOOD STEEL-STRAIGHT AND PROUD
at the foot of the towers that filled its sky.
It grew, mostly unnoticed,
silently marking the seasons.
What I LOVED about this book:
In a touch of brilliance, though the Callery pear tree "grew, mostly unnoticed," Aaron Becker's illustrations trace a single family's interaction and connection to this special tree. I love the opening image of a family enjoying stomping in the leaves while the city buzzes past.
Text © Marcie Colleen, 2021. Image © Aaron Becker, 2021.
Marcie Colleen creates a beautiful thread through the story using the passage of seasons to measure growth, resilience, and recovery. In the beginning, the tree grows at the base of the World Trade Towers, and Marcie uses lyrical language to follow the tree from "bare bones" to white blossoms and from dappled light on the sidewalk to brilliant "red hearts." And as Marcie marks the time 'Bare, white, green, red," Aaron shows the tree growing and captures the family changing - from kids to teens to young adults. So much is expressed in their economy of words and illustration.
Text © Marcie Colleen, 2021. Image © Aaron Becker, 2021.
Now, to be a 'survivor' something has to happen. And while many young kids won't necessarily have a point of reference, most adults will never forget where they were or how they felt on 9/11/2001. I know I never will. I was impressed with the way Marcie and Aaron tackled this part of the story. "One September day, the perfect blue sky exploded," crushing and burning the tree. Although, as Marcie mentioned above - "We see the sister go off into the “real world” and later see a photo of the two in the debris on 9/11. It can be concluded that the sister worked and died in the towers," this being the story of the tree, the text and illustrations focus on the workers (with the ruined buildings in the background) and their discovery a little bit of green - despite everything, the tree was sprouting new leaves.
The book follows the shattered stump of the tree as it is relocated to a place to heal - the Arthur Ross Nursery. With a slight tweaking of the earlier sequence - "white, green, red, bare" - we see the "charred and gnarled" tree grow and reclaim its shape over ten years. And then, one winter, it finally returns home. Where people no longer rush by, but stop and cry and notice the tree. Aaron has wonderfully wrapped up his parallel visual story. The young boy, now a father with his own child, poses once again by the tree in the fall with a photo of himself and his sister and honors his sister’s memory with a white rose.
Text © Marcie Colleen, 2021. Image © Aaron Becker, 2021.
The ending is tear-jerkingly poignant and yet hopeful. Marcie does a remarkable job of mirroring the beginning and celebrating the resilience of the tree and our country. Aaron's watercolor and colored pencil illustrations are vibrant and haunting, yet at the same time hopeful and defiant. A note at the end tells more about the tree - especially how every year three of its seedlings are given to communities rebuilding from tragedies, so "they might plant their own symbol of a hopeful future" - and has a recent picture of the tree. As well as notes from the author and the illustrator. Overall, this is a wonderful book for addressing 9/11 and other tragedies and demonstrating the resilience, hope, and defiance of nature, our country, and ourselves.
- make your own survivor tree leaves in green and red and write a message of hope on each one. Tape them on a window in a tree shape or join yours with others to create your own hopeful community tree.
- what does resilience mean to you? How can you model resilience in your life? Draw a picture or write about an example.
Pre- Order deal:
Marcie Colleen has an amazing offer for all pre-orders & purchases through the Run For Cover Bookstore - all purchases will receive a signed book and an 11x17 poster.
Note - she will honor this deal through 9/11.