by Sam Juliano
“I am as constant as the northern star” -William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
There is a deep elegiac undercurrent running through G. Brian Karas’ As An Oak Tree Grows, a quietly affecting story of a towering canopy that lives for better than two-hundred years. In the tradition of Virginia Lee Burton’s beloved Caldecott Medal winning The Little House, there is a human aspect to the seemingly symbolic specter that bears witness to the many changes that are wrought on what begins as a clearing in the woods, progressing to a small town and then to a populated hamlet near a river. Much like Burton’s book, everything and anything changes around the centerpiece, while technological advancements and population increases alter the landscape, with nothing but the tree achieving any measure of permanence. What never changes is the appreciation for the giant oak by generations who find different ways to make this indomitable presence an integral part of their lives.
It all begins when the young son of early New World settlers plants an acorn in the ground in early spring. Later in the year and oak tree sprouts and begin the annual ritual of shedding leaves in the fall and growing new ones in the spring. By 1800 the boy has grown up and moved on, leaving farmers to develop the land, though the oak tree was left alone to expand. Though branches break during winter it lives on, as the area around it continues to broaden from 1825-1850. A few decades later the area suffers from a mini-drought that forces the oak tree’s roots to expand, searching for life-sustaining water, as the symptoms include wilted leaves.
Then the nocturnal landscape is dotted by lights after electricity is introduced. In the mid 1920’s cars and planes began to appear and life took on a much faster pace. Power lines and smokestacks were now as dominant as anything there by natural means. Meanwhile the oak tree grew steadily in an all-encompassing arc. The 1950’s brought car radios, gasoline stations, bridges scooters and jets, as the tree took up even more air space. In 1975 the tree, at two-hundred years old was a manifestation of shade and comfort, taken for granted, yet a refuge for the birds, animals and insects that became residents of its holes and branches. During the year 2000 a fog rolls in, signalling a major storm. Karas reflects that the tree has survived many storms over decades and centuries as a result of its inherent physical fortitude. A bolt of lightening split the tree in two during a ferocious storm and the tree’s remarkable reign of longevity has ended. As roads are closed off, people arrive to see the space where the tree once stood, and to watch the dismembering that will result in wood for furniture, firewood and mulch. Then the life cycle renews.
While Karas’ lovely prose is valedictory from the start, it is imbued with the power of a photo album, one that cherishes the special moments that turn history into someone more intimate and special. The oak tree, imposing and regal, stands as a guardian to the life played out under and around its branches, both a spiritual comfort and a symbol of continuity. What starts off as a science book ends up as an affirmation of life, something that’s proof parcel that a tangible way to bridge the past with the present and the future. Another theme running through As An Oak Tree Grows is attuned to the concept of something that is constant On the bottom of nearly each page (excepting only for those that are continued) is a date darkened on a time line. In a time of continued upheaval and re-making the oak tree is a symbol that as much as things change in life, the core remains the same.
Karas’ magnificent gouache and pencil art is suffused with expansive seasonal tapestries that capture time and place as their visual documentation travels through decades and centuries. The first sprouting of the tree is a striking menagerie of brown tones, as the tree sheds its leaves to a flaky coffee-colored bed. Ravens, a squirrel, sailboats and impressionist foliage make this detailed tapestry one of the book’s most sublime; The early 1800’s snowscape with tree covered white, some broken branches and ice chunks in river bring to mind Shubert’s Wintereisse and the visual trappings of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. Karas paints spring in 1850 as an idyllic place to live, one marked by the simple life, home maintenance and horse and buggys. Yellow and green converge in scenic splendor. Darkness at the turn of the century is dotted by lights, seen up front and distantly at the other end of the river; the oak tree’s sturdy branches oversee a bustling town in transition, as the first automobile makes and appearance in a splendidly sketched and detailed landscape; the illustrator goes full bloom in an ocean of green in 1975, and then works atmospheric wonders in both the the windy autumnal panel bathed in muted color and the violent silhouette laden panel that depicts the destruction of this long-lived guardian. The final busy panel of the aftermath is quite moving, as the loss is of human dimensions.
As An Oak Tree Grows combines a captivating story that spans generations with arresting art, that by all rights should both have Joyce Kilmer in heavenly bliss, and the Caldecott committee hovering over its pages taking notes.
Note: This is the fortieth 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 at least 40 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. The awards will be announced on February 2nd, hence the reviews will continue to the end of January.