Written and Illustrated by Judith Clay
Living as she does in a concrete jungle, the only trees little Thea has ever encountered are the ones that thrive in her parents’ childhood memories. Mama talks of climbing them, Papa remembers collecting fruit to eat. But the grim world they live in offers little hope for Thea ever doing the same. Cue for a miracle – a single leaf that flutters by Thea’s window one day, accompanied by the magical sound of rustling leaves. . “Where there’s a leaf, there has to be a tree”, she declares, and sets off on a solitary quest behind the leaf. But when she finally catches it, something unexpected occurs. Will Thea find her tree, and a chance at the kind of childhood her parents enjoyed?
Thea’s Tree is a feel good story without much conflict or adventure , so at a casual glance, it would seem more likely to appeal to younger readers. Add to this Judith Clay’s whimsical illustrations that combine collage with simple line drawings and leaf imprints – her characters are quirky, with their triangular bodies and impossibly upturned necks. Scale and perspective are playfully toyed with too, especially in the spreads where Thea chases her leaf through the grim, treeless city.
And yet, I wouldn’t call this a simple book, given the layered themes its story suggests. There is its strong environmental message, of course, and there is a shout-out to the importance of following your heart and dreams. The book is also an ode to the simple pleasures of childhood that are increasingly threatened by consumerism – Thea is alone in her yearning for a tree; not a single child she meets shares her dream, or seems to understand the importance of trees.
On a more personal note, the book resonated with me as a sort of anti-GivingTree - remember Shel Silverstein’s heartbreaking (some would say sadistic and grimly patriarchal as well) paean to selflessness and all-sacrificing love? “Why do you want a tree?”, a pivotal character in the book asks of our diminutive heroine .” Do you want to build a hut or a fire…(or) make it into newspapers and books?” As one of the legion left traumatized by Silverstein’s callous Boy, Thea’s response was for me a quiet reaffirmation of life and humankind's ability to give back to the environment that nurtures it.
Thea’s Tree was listed in the White Ravens 2011 catalog of notable and remarkable international children’s books.