Book Finds: The Tree of Here by Chaim Potok (Tony Auth, illustrator)

tree of hereAs I have noted before, I often troll library sales and bookstore discount sections for children’s picture books. It alleviates my bok addiction in a way that is easy on the pocketbook and makes my kids happy.  Win-win, right?

What I still find amazing is how you can find such high quality books for such discounted prices. Depressing in a way, as it is sad to see little Susie’s grandmother’s in-scripted book in the sale pile and it would also be hard to see the rapid depreciation of hardcover children’s books if you were in the industry I suppose.  But for me it is a great joy; interesting books for a dollar or two.

One such find recently was The Tree of Here by Chaim Potok. Which it is appropriate to share today as it is Potok’s birthday. The famous Jewish author was born February 17, 1929 in Buffalo, New York.

Here is a teaser for Potok’s first children’s story:

Moving is so hard! Jason has good friends and a school he really likes, but his father has been promoted, and the family is moving to Boston. Sheltered by the branches of the huge dogwood tree in the yard, Jason pours out his fears. Can it be that the tree answers back?

The funny thing is that I kinda like the story and my kids have enjoyed having it read to them a number of times already.  But the critics did not like it.

A few examples below.

Kirkus:

Stagily wistful, overwritten, long, and punctuated with pointless scenes, this well-known novelist’s first children’s story has little to recommend it. Auth captures some of the atmosphere that goes with any big childhood change, but can’t compensate for the story’s unwieldiness and inconsistencies. At one point, the mother’s “sacrifice” for the move is that she’ll give up her travel-agency job. That idea is dropped, and readers are given a scene of her at her parents’ graves: “It’s hard for me to leave them.” It would be, if there were any emotional authenticity within these pages–but there’s not.

Publishers Weekly

Potok disappoints in his first children’s book, an ill-pitched story that addresses the need for certain constants in a changing world. Jason is deeply upset when his parents announce that the family is moving–for the third time in five years. Although his friends and Mr. Healy the gardener offer support, it is the dogwood in his yard that gives Jason the most solace: “This tree makes me feel like I’m growing roots. It makes me feel like I’m really here,” he says. Seeing a face in the expressive, craggy bark, Jason confides his thoughts to the tree and, in turn, listens as the tree whispers its “secret feelings.” His character is amorphous: young enough to believe in talking trees, old enough to go to an ice cream parlor with just his friends, worldly enough to expect that he and his friends won’t correspond (“They all knew that boys their age hardly ever wrote one another”). Auth deserves credit for rendering the tree as companionable instead of menacing, especially in a fantastical night scene during which Jason experiences the tree moving across the lawn, reaching into the house with its branches and embracing him. But Auth’s art is frequently jarring and seems to nod at animated cartoons: for example, the emptiness said to “invade” the house is represented by white, textbook-style arrows. Don’t go out on a limb for this one.

School Library Journal

Potok’s first book for children is about Jason, whose family has moved three times in five years and is about to relocate again. The boy must say farewell to a dogwood tree, with which he regularly holds mental conversations. Its deep roots are a metaphor for a sense of place and “hereness.” Before the family’s car pulls away, the gardener gives Jason a little dogwood so that he can “put down roots” in his new home. Potok tries to relate the boy’s distress with phrases such as “the kitchen floor swayed slightly.” Auth’s watercolor illustrations show him engaging in violent play with his toy soldiers and computer games and bidding his friends goodbye. They work better than the text in conveying his emotions, but it is uncertain whether young readers will catch their nuances. The most emotional scene is at the cemetery, where Jason’s mother says goodbye to her parents before leaving town, and her husband comforts her. This single-concept story lacks fully realized characters. Leda Siskind’s The Hopscotch Tree (Bantam, 1992), with its rich characterizations, is a far better book about adjusting to a new school and finding comfort in communicating with a tree.

I can’t say I can argue with much of the criticism above and I am not sure why I liked the book despite all of that. Having moved a lot I could relate to the feelings involved I suppose.  Perhaps the wistfulness and oddness feel different two decades later.  In fact, I like how it is rather odd (with a comic book feel to the illustrations on some pages and more traditional illustrations on others).  The story is meandering and messy rather than direct, neat and clean.  Maybe the fact that it only cost me a dollar lowered my expectations. Who knows exactly, but I enjoyed reading it and found it worth owning.

And this is one of the things I enjoy about picking up books at library sales and discount shelves. I can buy a twenty year old book in mint condition by a famous author for just a dollar. I can appreciate its quirks and explore the illustrations without the pressure of paying $15 or more for a brand new hardcover book.  Kirkus, PW, and all the rest notwithstanding.

Plus, it gave me a reason to post something Chaim Potok’s birthday …

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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