Little tree/ Petit arbre by Katsumi Komagata

By Maureen Tai, 22 April 2018

“No one notices such a small presence … be still here in the snow.” 

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Except we do notice. There is a pristine shard of white paper, protruding from the middle of the first two pages like a beak, or an arrowhead, or a sprouting seed.

The story continues, with the shard turning into a stocky trunk with four bare branches protruding from the sides.  Turn the page, then taller still, with a dotting of green leaves.  By the summer, the tree is fully formed and familiar to us – lush, green, full and proud – leaving a dark shadow across the ground, as if to say “I exist. I am here.”  The tree then changes its raiment from green, to yellow, to deep crimson, as the seasons march forward.  During a dark stormy night, the tree stands – black, strong, silent and forbidding – and in the next spread, it is winter, and the tree is bare again, vulnerable, its leaves taken from it by the wind.

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The shadows play at the edges now, hinting at activity around the tree. A lamp post. A road sign. Tall buildings, perhaps a church.  There are figures too.  A person walking his dog, another riding his scooter, and a man grieving for a dead friend.

And then the tree is gone. The middle of the pages where we’ve become accustomed to seeing the tree is smooth and frighteningly empty.  There is no explanation.  Save for the shadows. They are the deepest and darkest on these pages, hinting perhaps at human encroachment. Human progress stops for no one, and certainly for no tree.

Katsumi uses just over 200 English words to tell the little tree’s life story (there is also French and Japanese text).  The paper is exquisite, as you would expect from the Japanese.  Each spread is created from card paper that varies in colour and texture. The bird’s egg blue, pale yellow, burnt ochre, and silver specked black complement the changing seasons and the changing moods of the tree.  The book itself is perfectly engineered to lie flat from the first page to the last.  With each page turn, the next iteration of the tree appears to replace the last version absolutely seamlessly.  Perhaps that is why it is such a shock when the tree disappears at the end of the book.  The reader loses something, and that sense of loss is palpable.

I love pop-up books, and have great respect for their artistry, beauty and fragility.  Little tree is an exceptional work with a timely reminder as we fight for the survival of our wonderful but fragile planet.

For ages 7 and up.

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