A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
The illustrations convey humans' adaptation to and impact on a natural landscape over time. Readers can compare the changes with historical innovations in our world, like roads, cars, planes, machines, and electric lights. They can talk about what changes they've noticed in buildings and nature where they live.
Even after tragedy strikes the main tree in the story, an acorn falls and a new tree is born, signaling the recovery of the devastated landscape and offering a message of hope that human-caused damage can be reversed by new growth in the natural world. The reader's own positive messages can spring from this wordless book.
Positive Role Models
Humans are seen in both a positive and negative light. They are industrious workers who adapt to their surroundings and tame the land and its animals in order to survive and thrive. They innovate and create new technologies, including waterwheels, cars, trucks, boats, and planes, but they also bring war and crowded living conditions, reroute rivers, and create the conditions that cause floods, fires, and droughts. We don't see the humans close up, but children are often shown happy and enjoying nature, especially the tree.
It's hard to see physical characteristics of the tiny humans in the illustrations, but there appear to be different skin tones and hair types, some conical hats, some top hats, some brimmed Western hats, suggesting diverse cultures intermingling.
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Violence & Scariness
As the story progresses, some kind of climate change (ice floes) and war fallout (nuclear winter?) seem to have destroyed the human civilization and caused serious damage to the main tree. But it sheds an acorn that floats a ways downstream and sprouts on land at another curve of the river. It grows into a healthy tree, and readers see on the facing page a rainbow, echoing the triumphant, restorative rainbow in the biblical story of Noah's Ark.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Tree and the River, by author-illustrator Aaron Becker (Journey, A Stone for Sascha), is a wordless picture book that spotlights a tree growing in an ever-changing landscape over time. Settlers arrive, tame the land, raise animals and grow crops, and build a civilization that goes from villages with houses and barns to walled medieval-type towns to steampunk-like cities to Space Age metropolises. There are hints of war but no violence to humans shown. However, destruction of the landscape is shown, along with hope of recovery and renewal in nature. There's a lot for readers to think about and narrate for themselves.
Is It Any Good?
This detailed look at the growth of one place through time is both an alternate history of civilization and a hopeful wordless story of recovery and renewal. The Tree and the River can also be seen as a cautionary tale of humans' impact on nature and ability to change their world through technology. In the end, nature seems to win, or at least to persist and survive.
Unlike author-illustrator Aaron Becker's previous wordless books, there's no main human character or characters to follow on a quest or grieving process. The tree and the river are the main characters. And, as usual, Becker gives readers young and old a lot to think about as they pore over his intricate illustrations.
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Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.
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