|Image from ShaunTan.net|
Feelings of depression and isolation are explored in this emotionally evocative story. A small red-haired girl in a long purple dress begins her day with nothing to look forward to and the situation goes from bad to worse. She feels lost, misunderstood, and forgotten. She waits and waits, but nothing changes. Wonderful things pass her by while troubles beset her from every side. She doesn’t know who she is or what to do. But at the end of the day, when she is about to go to bed with the same feelings she woke up she finds a small red tree that begins to grow. “Suddenly there it is / right in front of you / bright and vivid / quietly waiting / just as you imagined it would be.”
Tan’s sparse text skillfully expresses the many facets of depression and isolation. In the author’s note at the back of the Tan collection, Lost & Found, he writes that he has personal experience with depression and that he wanted to create “something useful from what can seem to be a useless experience – an abject feeling of hopelessness.” In addition, he wanted to acknowledge and validate depression for readers of all ages. On his website Tan notes that this book was an experiment in creating a book without a sequential narrative.
Tan intended the illustrations to be representations of emotion in landscape form and this goal is most certainly achieved. Tan uses multimedia techniques to create a textured, layered world that seems to overpower the small protagonist. The surreal landscapes compound the feelings alienation. For instance, one illustration shows the girl bewildered by buildings created from print words in many languages and another depicts the girl trying to weather a stormy sea full of huge grey ships in a tiny red boat. However, the book has a hopeful ending and if you look closely at each illustration you can find a red leaf, a red leaf to remind the girl that the red tree of hope does exist.
When you read this book aloud make sure you give the audience some time to examine and think about the illustrations and words. You may want to choose a quiet piece of music to play in the background. I love reading this book because I always find something new in the illustrations or in the way I connect with the text.
The Red Tree was adapted into a play by the Barking Gecko Theatre Company in Australia (check out the production highlight video). They developed an educator’s guide that includes many discussion questions and extension activities.
Hachette Books also developed a reader’s guide and I especially like their activities regarding symbolism. The most obvious symbol in the book is the red leaves and the red tree, but it can represent many things to different people. Ask kids to write or talk about what the red tree symbolizes for them. Have kids look for more symbols in the book. Encourage kids to create symbols that represent different emotions or ideas.
Check out this animated retelling of the book by Ellsie Kay. It's more than a book trailer, but something less than fully animated. Kay's original music adds a beautiful layer to the story.