What makes a good subject for a children’s picture book? I see so many similar books on the bookshop shelves. Clear happy pictures, short happy stories. “Once There Was a Tree”, written by Natalia Romanova and illustrated by Gennady Spirin, could not be more different. As a foretaste, here is a page number:
You can read more about Spirin at this page. He is described as being “like a magician, using his paint brush as a wand.” I hope these scans of the books do justice to his work. I was once lucky enough to see an exhibition of his original paintings. They are breathtaking.
“Once There Was a Tree” describes the death and resurection of an old tree. The book starts with the grand image of the old tree’s death as it is struck by lightning.
A forester comes along and cuts it down. Then for several pages we explore what happens to the tree stump as it gradually and gently decays.
He is quite a character with his chainsaw and cigarette:
Mosses and mushroom grow in its crevices. Insects crawl over it, and are eaten by little birds. A bear sharpens his claws on it. A frog shelters in its cracks.
The story celebrates all the different life forms which benefit from the “death” of the tree, and ends with a new tree growing in the rich remains of the old one. I’m only posting a couple of the images, there are many more. This reminds me of the Deer God in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke – in this film, the Deer God is both decay and death, and new life sprouting. Death is not evil but is part of life. “Once there was a tree” ends with the new tree growing, and it says:
“The tree belongs to all, because it grows from the earth, that is home to all”