One tree by Christopher Cheng
Illus. by Bruce Whatley. Puffin, 2019. ISBN: 9780143786733.
(Age: 4+) Highly recommended. Themes: Environment, Change, Urbanisation, China, Gardens. A boy who lives in an apartment in a city is saddened that his Grandfather who lives with them rarely speaks; his father has told him that this man was always full of stories, particularly about his farm where he lived beneath a large tree.
The boy knows well the story of the old man, taking his produce to the village market, where if someone asked where he lived, he proudly pointed to the large tree on the hill.
But now the crowded apartments block the old landscape, and he is unhappy, looking only at a picture on the wall of his farm. But a chance sighting of a small seedling growing in the footpath gives the boy and his grandfather a way of communicating, a way to talk to each other, one to tell his stories and teach the younger child, the boy to listen and learn from his grandfather.
Christopher Cheng's heritage gives a resounding strength to this wonderful story of youth and age, of change and adaptation. The apartment houses represent a new way of life, one that the old man finds hard to accept, remembering instead the open fields and hills where he once lived. His memories come back when the boy brings home the seedling, Grandfather gradually becoming involved in the growing of the seedling, buying soil and a pot, telling the boy he must talk to his tree, leave it on the balcony for warmth and sunlight, and bring it in at night against the cold. The two sit together as their plant multiplies, and the boy is proud when they can go to the market and look up and recognise their flat by searching for the green on the balcony. Sharing the seedlings means others put pots on their balconies and the small act by one boy stimulates others in his neighbourhood.
Whatley's masterful illustrations, using new techniques which reference ages old lino and woodblock printing, will engage the readers as he contrasts their lives. The life of the older man on his farm, with his life today in the crowded city, the boy's life, swamped by rows of moving feet on the footpath with Grandfather's lone years tending his land. The images evolve through the story, showing a reclusive old man becoming one who is engaged and communicating, the landscape once open and forested to one filled with apartment blocks, a boy who is puzzled to one who is rapt in the attention of his grandfather. Poignant and evocative, Whatley's detailed illustrations will remain with the reader as they close the last page and think about the boy and his family.
This is a beautiful testimony to the place of older people within a family, the wisdom they can pass on, the changes they have seen and their evolving relationships with the younger generation. Cheng inhabits his story with an almost mythic quality; it is like reading a fable which readers will ponder long after the story has finished. Teacher's notes are available.