The Happiest Tree: A Story of Growing Up
“Use this sparse and simple picture book for a story time with patient readers who are ready for reflection on the lives of trees and the importance of resilience and community.”
“I moved to this building when I was ten years old,” a gingko tree tells us at the beginning of this quiet picture book by Korean author/illustrator Hyeon-Ju Lee. As the tree slowly grows it can see through the windows floor after floor and watch the different tenants’ lives.
Rose teaches piano on the ground floor. Mr. Artist paints on the second floor. The Kong family and their many puppies live on the third floor and, when it is 20 years old and has grown tall enough to look through the windows on the fourth floor the tree watches “a lonely grandmother.”
Along this rite-of-passage the tree enjoys something special with each of the people it sees. The artist creates a painting of the tree, allowing it to see himself for the first time. “I was happy and excited and full of life.”
The time with the Kong family, home to five puppies, “were some of the happiest of [his] life.”
Watching the grandmother, when the tree is 20, sitting alone in her apartment, looking at family photos, it “felt sadness.”
After 25 years the tree has grown to the top floor of the building, where “only [its] long shadow was beside [him].”
A long time of loneliness follows until he has grown tall enough to see over the rooftops, making at least a visual connection with all the other trees in the neighborhood. Finally, the tree declares, “I am the happiest gingko tree in my town.”
Personifying a tree might encourage young readers to think about the life of the trees that surround them. It might also provoke children to consider the life humans force upon trees. Why is there only one gingko tree next to the house? Wouldn’t a tree be happier in a forest where it can be with its peers instead of only spending years watching the humans in the house next to it? Isn’t it cruel to make it wait over 20 years to experience the feeling of community?
Lee’s sparse and tender art expresses the tree’s different feelings and moods over the time of its growing. The years of loneliness are depicted during the night, while the images lighten up when it can finally see the other trees.
The book does not include the human perspective, and readers might wonder what the tenants think about the tree, what the tree means to them. Why did the artist on the second floor chose the tree as a subject for his paintings? What do the Kongs and their puppies think about the tree? Would the lonely grandmother find solace in the tree’s constancy and closeness?
Lee invites young readers to consider that trees have a long and varied life as they grow slowly beside us. Thoughtful readers will realize the parallels between humans and the tree, that our human life—just as the life of trees—is full of transitions and ups and downs. Lee reminds us also that each stage often provides unexpected moments of joy.
Use this sparse and simple picture book for a story time with patient readers who are ready for reflection on the lives of trees and the importance of resilience and community.