One of the great joys of a children’s book is that it lives on for a very long time. Children renew the world for us all, and as each fresh year arrives there is another throng of children snuggled in a parent’s lap or their own bed, or listening intently to a librarian or schoolteacher turning the pages of a picture or chapter book and reading aloud. Right now, a child somewhere is meeting, for the first time, The Cat in the Hat or Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And as a children’s author, nothing is more inspiring than contemplating kids around the world newly enjoying a book I wrote, especially one brought to life by lovely illustrations.
As an author, most of the time, I don’t get to participate in the joy of children experiencing my book. That remains a mystery. So it was a huge surprise and thrill when I discovered in late May, that the COVID-19 pandemic, with its global school closures and sheltering at home, had inspired librarians, principals, ministers and schoolteachers to take to YouTube offering read-alouds of their favorite books, including mine.
My most recent picture book for Magination Press, The Hugging Tree, was published in 2016, but from March to May of this year, it was read aloud here and abroad online by two dozen individuals—schoolteachers, principals, even a Unitarian minister. All ages chimed in, from schoolchildren reading together to a cheerful pastor with a bushy white beard. Some read by the ocean, others read with their favorite companion pet, such as a guinea pig named Mocha. I do not personally know any of the people who chose to share my book. But I know why they chose it: the book is a story about resilience, about bouncing back from adversity.
The story follows a tree that begins as a seed blown onto a rocky cliff, where it tries to grow with very little soil and no greenery. The tree befriends the ocean, moon, sun and birds, surviving loneliness, harsh storms and a freezing winter. With its boughs broken, and its future uncertain, the tree is saved by a boy who visits it each day, bringing soil and flowers and water. The tree grows broad and green and tall and can shelter all the people who come each day to visit. The message: you’ll make it through tough times, if you reach out to others for help, and if you let the helpers reach out to you. It’s a message that seems to be resonating this year.
Each reader had their own special take on the book. Nicole Reardon, a classroom teacher in Queensland, Australia, and mother of two young children, read beautifully with an almost theatrical cadence, and whoever filmed her reading at home in her living room offered close-ups of the memorable art by noted illustrator Nicole Wong. Nicole’s video aired on May 1 and she concluded, “Right now in our own lives it might feel like we’re surrounded with thundering storms and winds just like the hugging tree. It’s important to remember that with just a little bit of friendship, compassion, kindness and the love from our parents, teachers and friends, we will get through this.” With her permission, Magination Press used her video read-aloud of my book for its Story Time.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., at Canon Exploratory School in Colorado, Principal Kelly Albrecht read the book aloud and one of her messages to her students was: The Hugging Tree “asks for help. Sometimes, even though times are difficult and things are rough and we’re going through a storm or cold harsh winters, we need other people to help us out. And you’re still being resilient by doing that. It’s not being weak to have help. In fact it shows some strength if you can ask others for help.” She told her students that, “I think especially right now as we’re going through this challenging time of learning from home and it’s not easy and you’re having to do some extra things that you didn’t do before I hope you will think of that tree going through that storm and reach out to the people that can help you.”
At the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato, Minnesota, the Children’s Faith Development Director, Macey Forsyth, read the book aloud and reminded her young listeners that “Resilience grows by being learned, practiced, and nurtured. What challenges are you facing during this time at home? How are you coping with those challenges and what new strategies for coping would you like to try?” She confessed that she likes to walk, run, practice yoga or even take a nap on a rainy afternoon if she is feeling stressed. The church’s program for children focuses on three spiritual experiences: Silence (meditation, mindfulness, listening), Service (leadership, helping others) and Sunshine (connection with nature.)
Many other readings can be found online, and I’ve compiled them on my web page. I never thought that my book would become a resource in so many places. From Sacramento to Maine, Canada to Australia, it deeply touches me that the book is being shared widely. It reminds me of the power of writing—something we can all do while sheltering at home. And I know that even though we’re going through very challenging times now, we will get through it, and we can help children grow resilience now. Then, when at last we can hug each other and the world again, our children will be able to go out and take up the dreams and the joys they may have temporarily put away.
You can see many of the YouTube videos of The Hugging Tree being read aloud on Jill Neimark’s website right here.
Related Books from Magination Press
The Hugging Tree: A Story of Resilience
The Hugging Tree is the story of a little tree growing all alone on a cliff. Sustained by the compassion of one little boy, the tree grows until it can hold and shelter others. The Hugging Tree calls to mind the potential in all of us: to thrive, despite times of struggle and difficulty, to dream and grow, just where we are.
A Note to Parents and Caregivers by Elizabeth McCallum, PhD, provides more information about resilience, and guidelines for building resilience in children.