by Sam Juliano
The story of the extraordinarily perspicacious fifteen-year-old German/Dutch girl Anne Frank, enshrined in a diary she maintained during two years of Nazi occupation, has remained a staple in classrooms, has been translated into seventy languages, and according to some accounts has a wider circulation worldwide than any book other the Bible. It is hardly a wonder that such a treasured document would hold such emotional sway in view of its brilliant young writer’s tragic end, yet her her life-affirming resilience in the face of this impending doom has inspired and moved readers to their cores. Volumes upon volumes of critical studies of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and the continued research into her short life have been the bane of historical scholars, and there can be no doubt this impassioned life force has moved mountains across the globe, no doubt precipitating more tears than any document ever written. Stage plays, films and documentaries on her life and the twenty-five months she spent holed up in a series of tiny rooms, sealed off by a bookcase have been plentiful and sustained, yet there are other angles that haven’t been explored both as a narrative aside or as a symbolic extension.
In the achingly poignant picture book, poetically written by Jeff Gottesfeld and illustrated by the Caldecott Honoree Peter McCarty, The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window, a horse chestnut tree standing outside a secret annex that shields eight people from concentration camp doom during the height of the Holocaust takes on the dual role of guardian and as a gateway to the sealed off outer world. In an afterward Gottesfeld confirms that young Anne made reference to the tree three times, though it is clear enough from the most stirring entry -the one the author showcases on the book’s opening page- that there is a metaphysical kinship with this venerable gateway to the outside world, one that encompasses beauty in its most unadulterated incarnation:
“The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.”
This seeming force of nature stood forlornly in a courtyard adjacent to a factory and crowded multi-storied homes as the winds of occupation began to blow towards Europe’s low lying countries. Like a young child mainly confined to domestic environs, the tree’s sphere of reach was limited to this benign precinct until the time when growth enabled it to see above the Amsterdam rooftops and assimilate the quaint cafes, picturesque canals and narrow houses with gabled facades. But when the tanks and armed soldiers in full sponsorship of the Third Reich ushered in the most unspeakably evil regime in world history, the role of this graceful purveyor of deep green leaves and exquisite pink-eyed white flowers that turned a dirty rustic amber in the fall took on a more urgent purpose at a time when concealment was the only manner of survival.
This venerable shade giver – one able to offer some measure of refuge during inclement weather – became a symbol of beauty and permanence at a time of consternation and turbulence and with precious few tangible manifestations of faith and assurance, these self imposed prisoners cherished the object that Joyce Kilmer labeled “a tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray” and Yates lovingly greeted with “O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer.” Indeed Gottesfeld describes the chestnut during the period right before the invasion:
She spread roots and reached skyward in peace.
McCarty’s magnificent brown ink on watercolor art -a sepia toned version of black and white- are ideally suited for a terrible time when positive energy was muted, and liberal thinking was often rewarded with a death sentence. Color, had McCartney opted for it, would have denoted stability and bliss, harmony and romance, posterity and hope. Furthermore in strictly aesthetic terms this constrictive hue is emblematic of this cultural period, when the cinema was mostly shot in monochrome and all the documentary footage of political rallies and human atrocities were presented in visually unvaried terms. McCarty’s first canvas is wholly sublime: the chestnut tree partially obscured the soon-to-be-Secret-Annex. But then the book is rocked by the next spread, a terrifying two page depiction of a Nazi air and ground assault – McCarty’s visceral canvas is lit up by explosions and soldiers storming a row of buildings to quell any modicum of resistance.
Otto Frank, his wife and two daughters are then seen approaching the entrance door of a factory at a time the author notes during the first winter of the war. We then see Anne, the much more outgoing and lively of the two girls under the chestnut tree, which Gottesfeld humanizes when he declares “The tree loved the sight of her.” Even the falling of leaves is attributed to the fearful uncertainty of the sudden emergence of the unwanted German occupiers, but after Anne is spotted the shedding is suspended. McCarthy then depicts the eight occupants and a black cat, delightfully shown in the same portly shape as Fabian in the illustrator’s Caldecott Honor book Hondo & Fabian. Then, stitched curtains help to guard the window to the outside world though a crack allows one to see the tree branches. Anne is seen working on her diary in the attic, but before long war planes buzz by sending Anne into her father’s arms as the tree outside doesn’t understand what is happening.
Gottesfeld’s utilization of the tree throughout the book is as an all-knowing and observant entity, a kind of taciturn Greek Chorus The tree saw the annex inhabitants light a menorah and sing. McCarty’s claustrophobic candlelit palette is beautiful and moving. Anne is shown at a small desk continuing to make entries in her diary as a factory worker, presumably the indomitable Dutch patriot and fiercely loyal family protector Miep Gies – who is referenced in the afterward, and who lived till she was one hundred years old fighting till the end to maintain the Frank family legacy – provides pens and paper. The budding romance between Anne and the boy Peter who lived with his own parents in this insulated garret is also captured by this ubiquitous sentinel. McCarty’s lovely canvas of extra bight blossoms straddles the roof tiles yields a melancholic yet hopeful ambiance.
Then the whole world comes crashing down when the dreaded Gestapo on orders from Austrian staff Sargeant Karl Silberbauer stage a raid on the Secret Annex and place all eight inhabitants and two other friends under arrest. Only Gies is left alone after questioning. McCarty’s spare and powerful depiction of the armed soldiers entering the compound is accentuated by the unbearably poignant capture of the diary and accompanying papers left scattered until Gies later gathers them up. Gottesfeld then opines that the tree maintains a vigil, and McCarty responds with a some of the book’s most rapturous art – documenting the seasonal changes on this unconquerable entity.
Gottesfeld’s portrayal of Otto Frank, the sole survivor of the Secret Annex incursion, as gaunt and crestfallen is masterfully framed:
The war ended. Only the father returned. He was thin, with sad eyes, as he padded through the annex like a living ghost.
Otto and Miep reunite, both overcome by emotion as they examine the diary. The tree is then seen as something unwavering and constant, though Gottesfeld notes that its prime purpose is at an end. She now stands much like an evergreen at a grave site, sedate and alone until she becomes the object of mass visitation by people all over who gaze at her while touring the attic rooms. The illustrator’s exquisite closeup of the springtime chestnut serves as a reverie and as Gottesfeld’s notes a shameful reminder of the inhumanity she witnessed. Though medicine was injected into the tree, age and a lightening storm eventually split this embodiment of the human soul, but a glorious resurrection paralleling the eternal torch held worldwide for the most venerated teenage girl in the history of mankind manifested itself in the planting of seeds and saplings around the globe in places such as England, Argentina and France as well as the World Trade Center site and a high school in Arkansas. Gottesfeld’s final lines are sublime and tear-inducing:
Though the new tress are still young, children come to visit. They read the girl’s words – about a chestnut in a courtyard glistening with dew – and touch the thin trunks. They are so entranced that they cannot speak.
Alas, so are the readers of The Tree in the Courtyard, which travels over familiar ground with a fresh and ever-touching perspective. Not only does McCarty deserve the most serious scrutiny for his delicate, gauze cloth, textured and old-fashioned sepia-toned art for one of the painful of subjects -and plaudits are also in order for the spare and elegiac end papers and cover- but Gottesfeld richly deserves to be square in the center of Newbery deliberations for his poetic lyricism. Recently named as one of the best picture books of 2016 by The New York Times, The Tree in the Courtyard is one of the most emotionally moving books in years. Two medals somehow seems fitting and proper, in view of this exceeding rare kinship of spirit.
Note: This is the eleventh entry in the ongoing 2016 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 30 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 January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.