by Sam Juliano
If we are to consider what author Tony Johnston asserts in an afterward to her new picture book Sequoia, the towering giants nearing the end of their existence today were rooted in the earth’s soil at a time that pre-dates ancient Rome by several hundred years, ran concurrent with Saul’s rule over the Hebrew tribes and the time when the Celtic migrations were launching. In North America, Indians were setting up camp, diverging into their own cultures. This incredible species would have seen one hundred generations come and go, and would have survived damaging storms, fires, earthquakes and climate changes. Their bark is known to be as much as three feet in thickness, the base at its widest twenty-seven feet and some other startling figures directly from Johnston: “With a distance around the base of 102.6 feet and a volume of 52, 500 cubic feet, the grand old man, General Sherman sequoia, is one of the largest living things on earth”, and without question the one with the longest longevity.
The sequoias, which are often confused with the redwoods, are a less but still sturdily resilient tree species, and are presently under protection at the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in east central California, having been officially labeled ‘endangered of extinction’, hence steps are now being instituted to perpetuate their growth and eliminate the dangers posed by the planet’s biggest abusers. As framed by Johnson, the giant sequoia is a caretaker that oversees the daily cycle of life, one that both absorbs the sunlight and serves as a refuge to the many animals that rely on its massive overhang for refuge. Its “ancient arms” accommodate perching owls; its bark keeps woodpeckers in business, while all the while “listening” to the sound of one bee hum, sniffs and smells the breeze and the heat, and senses impending storms and fire. The sequoia serves as a kind of specter witnessing the wildlife activities below, and as a way lay station for crows to take a break, yet as Johnston acknowledges in her free-wheeling impressionistic verse, the sequoia figuratively keeps tabs on the passing of time and almost by magic is a living witness to nature’s alternating weather patterns. This sequoia is not only a monument to the stars but a living witness to all that has transpired within geographical grasp. Johnston’s giant sequoia, like Virginia Lee Burton’s modest little country structure in The Little House, and a book of far more recent vintage by G. Brian Karras about an oak tree, possesses human qualities, and the power to document the passing of time.
The paintings in Sequoia, which invariably elevate the book from merely impressive to master-class, are by Wendell Minor, one of America’s most accomplished and prolific artists, who this year alone has produced three wholly magnificent works. The first, Galapagos George, done in collaboration with the late and venerated Jean Craighead George, was the maiden book covered in this series, and Edward Hopper Paints His World, written by Robert Burleigh, will be considered later this month. Minor, as always, completed impeccable on site research before commencing with his art, and the results yield a commanding interpretation of one of the earth’s true wonders and the creatures that live below, within, and under the circumference of this widest of all umbrellas.
Minor goes vertical for one breathtaking view of just how enormous the sequoia is, with a brown bear looking tiny in perspective, and another in the snow where the stationary giant is likened to a white-clad Merlin in a ravishing cornucopia of snow-covered pine needles. Sequoia is populated with some arresting tapestries, including a regal red-maned woodpecker in close-up chomping at bark; the opening spread of an eagle in flight as the sequoia glistens from the sun rays of an approaching dawn; an irresistible portrait of a trio of deer almost posing for the camera in front the tree’s base; a smoldering fire (Minor in all his books is the absolute master of replicating this most-feared of events) with his orange and yellow paints splashes and wind-swept embers assisting woodland disaster, and a tree being menaced by lightening bolts as a storm sets in, while on the opposite panel frogs surface on rocks and in rain puddles. A white horned owl flies in front of the moon at the start of winter, and the ancient sequoia becomes one with the stars in a burst of celestial glory. Both paintings are spectacular.
Minor’s art, as ever cognizant of the various wonders to be found among wild life and in the great outdoors, is at the top of its game in Sequoia. As opposed to a chronicler, who prefers to craft paintings of photographs, Minor brings a level of mystery and enchantment to his neutral depictions of animals gazing, in flight and engaging in their trademark functions. It is almost as if predators are stopped dead in their tracks, themselves intimidated by the majesty of these outdoor incarnations of Father Time, keeping a watchful eye on the order of things.
Again Minor rings the Caldecott bell with one of 2014’s most exquisite picture books. Sequoia is wholly ravishing.
Note: This is the seventh entry in the 2014 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include between 20 and 25 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end.