The Boy who Grew a Tree by Polly Ho-Yen; illustrated by Sojung Kim-McCarthy (Knights Of, 2022)
In Polly Ho-Yen's new book from Knights Of, we explore a contemporary, familiar world of libraries-under-threat, urbanisation and the place of family in an increasingly high-stress world.
Tomi is a little boy who at first keeps himself to himself at after-school club. His mum's time is taken up with looking after his prematurely-born sister and Tomi finds it hard connecting with other children. He finds a tiny seedling growing in an abandoned, soon-to-be-knocked-down library and, being the ardent nature lover that he is, gives it a drink of water. And from this point a tale of love and finding oneself in a confusing world begins to flourish.
This fable for our own times is a sheer delight for so many reasons. Firstly, it is that rarest of things: a challenging, engaging, exceptionally well-written novel for children just starting to branch out into reading for themselves. It would work extremely well in Year 3, but also for children at the end of Year 2 or beginning of Year 4.
Without any dogma attached, the novel puts across in the most direct and poignant way its message about caring for our local environments, both natural and man-made, and about looking after each other. There is such high quality in the writing throughout, the language skilfully judged and some moments breathtaking in their simplicity and depth. Slightly older readers in the anticipated audience age-range will benefit from exploring the ways in which Ho-Yen portrays Tomi's inner world - and some of the other characters too: Abi rubbing her headscarf, Isaac clinging to his cousin, Tomi's mum and her 'hidden' story that carries on throughout the novel - what is going on in their lives that we don't get to 'see'?
The pictures are a truly perfect addition to this lovely story. Sojung Kim-McCarthy's soft chalk and charcoal drawings in shades of grey, black and white invite us throughout to appreciate Tomi's sensitivity and gentleness and the expressiveness of the children's faces have an innocent grace. There's a refreshing simplicity to the illustrations but, as with the words, there's real depth too.
I am just so pleased to read a short novel of this quality and thoughtfulness aimed at the younger junior age-range. It's such a beautiful thing to see a writer and illustrator coming together to create a gift like this, treating their young readers with a respect and intelligence they very much deserve.
I anticipate The Boy Who Grew a Tree becoming a favourite in Year 2, 3 and 4 classrooms so, to provide some starting points for Book Talk, I have put together a few prompts to get children of the this age-range thinking about the story, the pictures and some more general things too...
1. Have you ever grown plants, vegetables, flowers, fruit like Timi does? How did you do it? Was it easy or difficult to look after the plants? Maybe you could try growing bean plants in your classroom too, just like Timi. Make a diary of what happens each week, what you do to take care of the beans, and how it grows.
2. On page 16, Timi meets with a group of other children at the after-school club. He describes them often by talking about something from nature: a snail shell or snake skin for example. Why does he do this?
3. On page 36, Timi returns to the library and it says 'He felt something unknot inside of him'.
- What does it mean that he had a 'knot' inside him?
- Where do you think he would feel that knot in his body?
- What made that feeling appear inside him?
- Why does going to the library change how he feels inside?
4. Timi is amazed at the seedling's growth: 'It had only been one, two , three, four, five, six days! It was impossible that the seedling could have become a tree in so short a time'. Why do YOU think the tree got bigger and stronger so quickly.
5. After Timi spends the holiday with his aunt and cousin Isaac, he returns to the tree in the library.
- How has the tree changed?
- What is not any different about it?
- Why do you think the tree looks like this now?
6. As the tree grows, we are told Timi gives it water and opens the curtains for light, but also that he talks to it. Why do you think he does this? Does a plant need talking to help it grow? What things do you think Timi said to the seedling/tree? If the tree could hear Timi, what do you think would be the things it liked hearing the most?
7. Why does everyone get into the tree near the end? What are they trying to show? Why do they care so much about the tree?
8. On p. 102, Timi says to Bisi: 'All this. This is for you too.' What does he mean? What has he and his friends given to his new-born sister and why?
9. Who is Babu and the little girl mentioned at the very start and at the end of the book? How do you know this?
10. What would it be like to visit and use a library with a big tree growing up the middle of it? Do you think it was a good idea to build a library around the tree? Why do you think the council didn't build it somewhere else?
1. Before reading the story, look at the very first picture on page 1. Who is this in the picture? What are they doing? What other things are in the picture?
After you've finished the book, look again at this picture. How have your first thoughts changed? Who are the two characters? Where are they? Why has the illustrator drawn books, cushions, a wheely trolley into the picture? (And see if you can find them all in the very last picture too...!)
2. Find three pictures of Timi throughout the book. (Try to find three that show different expressions.) Look closely at the expressions on his face.
- Copy these pictures of his face.
- What is he feeling? What is he thinking?
- Why has the illustrator drawn his face like this? Look carefully at what is happening or being said in that part of the story.
3. Look at the pictures on pages 29, 43, 65 and 72. We are looking at the seedling/tree from different angles and different distances. Why has the illustrator drawn the pictures this way? Have a go at drawing something from above or below - it really changes how you think as an artist and as a reader! (Look out for this in cartoons or films you watch - film-makers call these close-ups, wide-shots and other things too)
4. Which is your favourite picture in the whole book? Why did you choose this one?
General things to do and to think about
1. Can you find any plants that are not growing in any soil in your garden, near your house or your school?
Draw them carefully - what tiny details can you see?
Find out how they manage to survive without any soil.
2. Timi knows such a lot about how to look after plants - and he's still very young! What are some of the things he does in the book that show how knowledgeable he is? Make a list of these and draw a little picture of your own to show Timi doing each thing.
3. Would Timi make a good friend for you or someone you know? Think of two things to say why you think this.
4. Why do you think the author chose for the seedling to grow in a library, rather than an old carpark or a deserted supermarket? Would the story be different if the tree had grown somewhere else?
5. Do you belong to your local library? It's free, so why not ask a trusted grown up to help you join? What books will you find there?
Ask one of the librarians to help you find out about different parts of the library, such as where the information books are, or the poetry, or maybe even DVDs and music recordings
What other things go on in your local library. Are there any special clubs for children? Who is allowed to use the computers?
6. We know that plants can grow and humans and all animals grow bigger too! But humans can grow 'as people' too. This is called personal growth: our thinking and actions can change as we learn to get better at dealing with other people and events in our lives
- How does Timi 'grow' as a person from the start to the end of the story?
- What are the most important things he experiences that help him to grow in this way?
- What has Timi taught YOU about personal growth?
- Do you have someone or some people in your life who read to you? If so, you're very lucky - it's a precious gift! Who does this? Ask them why they do it and talk about how you feel when they read to you.
- If not, perhaps ask someone at home or your teacher in school to read you something. Why not read to someone in your house, or a soft toy, or your pet...or even a little plant!