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The Picture Book Buzz

The Witness Trees - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

I've found a stunning poetic tribute to some of the world's oldest trees which have witnessed the best and the worst of humanity.

The Witness Trees: Historic Moments and the Trees Who Watched Them Happen

Author: Ryan G. Van Cleave

Illustrator: Đốm Đốm

Publisher: Bushel & Peck Books

Ages: 6-9



Ancient trees, history, and poetry.


In evocative verse and stunning artwork, Witness Trees is the story of the world's most enduring witnesses: the trees. From the Flower of Kent apple tree still standing in Sir Isaac Newton's yard, to the English oak given to Jesse Owens after facing down Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to the California redwood saved from destruction by July Butterfly Hill, to the Callery pear tree still miraculously alive after the World Trade Towers fell, Witness Trees is a moving tribute to the world's most famous trees, many of which still need humanity's protection. Be moved, be inspired, be amazed by the quiet, reverberating voices of nature's sentinels: the witness trees.

For each tree depicted, there is information about that tree and the events it witnessed. Among the trees lovingly discussed are 20 trees you can visit today.

Opening Lines:

In the sweep of wind over grass,

near the pulse of rivers,

we stand,

monuments of bark

and age-curled green.

Our roots run deep -

they grip history,

a restless forever.

What I LOVED about this book:

This book has such an amazing premise - a story told by the trees who have seen/experienced history - and a powerful opening. As the book begins - "We bear witness/ to the What,/ When,/ and How." - the illustration starts its own narrative - that of a young boy and his family visiting an ancient tree near a crumbled ruin. As the boy's hand touches the tree bark, we see the echo or memory of another hand reaching toward him . . .

Text © Ryan G. Van Cleave, 2023. Image © Đốm Đốm’s, 2023.

The Whos of the past

linger in the rings

and the whorls of memory.

How powerful is that? Told as a collective narrative, the first couple of trees (including the Buddha's fig tree and Sir Isaac Newton's apple tree) start with the refrain "We remember . . ." And in each illustration, the little boy joins historic characters - in meditation, climbing a tree to hunt with Robin Hood, and picking an apple. Subtly bringing the young reader into the historic event. After the trees "remember the hushbomb of happiness" and the end of slavery, the narrative asks the reader to close their eyes and listen "to leafspeak and barksong," as the boy joins President Lincoln and the fireflies at the Gettysburg Cemetery.

I love the strong lyrical language throughout the poems and how thought-provoking they are about the history the trees have witnessed and endured. The opening refrain for the next few trees (including Jessie Owen's oak sapling and Julia Butterfly Hill's Luna) is "We are . . . " As part of this section, the illustrations take the little boy to the World Trade Center and Hiroshima, Japan.

Text © Ryan G. Van Cleave, 2023. Image © Đốm Đốm’s, 2023.

We are the hackberry,

ginko, and black pines

that swallowed the heatflash

of a thousand suns.

I appreciate the way Đốm Đốm included the young boy in this series of illustrations - either joining in saving an ancient redwood or respectfully acknowledging these trees. The final refrain, "We never forget..." includes a very powerful illustration and a beautiful lyrical tribute to Anne Frank and her chestnut tree, as well as this intriguing poem . . .

Text © Ryan G. Van Cleave, 2023. Image © Đốm Đốm’s, 2023.

We never forget the firm fingers

of a radiant girl who climbed skyward

to cloudwhite and beyond.

The stunning and powerful final four spreads not only beautifully wrap up the narrative of these magnificent, ancient trees but also conclude the family's picnic and offer hope for the future. An author's note gives more information on witness trees and a list provides the locations of the ones featured in the book. This is a stunning picture book, both visually and lyrically. It's a fun way to think about and open discussions of history and the need to respect and preserve these ancient trees and our connection with nature.


- for Arbor Day (5/28/2023, in the U.S.), plant a tree in your yard, in a pot, or join an and help plant some trees in your community.

- look around your neighborhood or town what is the oldest tree you can find? Does your state have a really old tree? What history could it have witnessed?

- pair this with The Tree of Hope: The Miraculous Rescue of Puerto Rico’s Beloved Banyan by Anna Orenstein-Cardona, illustrated by Juan Manuel Moreno and Bristlecone: The Secret Life of the World's Oldest Tree by Alexandra Siy, illustrated by Marlo Garnsworthy for a look at two other ancient trees.

- and compare it with This Very Tree: A Story of 9/11, Resilience, and Regrowth by Sean Rubin, Survivor Tree by Marcie Colleen, illustrated by Aaron Becker, Branches of Hope: The 9/11 Survivor Tree by Ann Magee, illustrated by Nicole Wong, and The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank's Window by Jeff Gottesfeld, illustrated by Peter McCarty. How did these author's choose to tell these tree's stories?

If you missed the interview with Ryan G. Van Cleave on Monday, find it (here).

This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions and resources see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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