cover image The Old Tree: An Environmental Fable

The Old Tree: An Environmental Fable

Ruth Brown, . . Candlewick, $16.99 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-7636-3461-2

Brown's (Ten Seeds ) magnificent watercolor and acrylic pictures are the saving grace of an otherwise ponderous story—which, despite the subtitle, is really more about cooperation than the virtues of being green. A bevy of anthropomorphized critters (prolific Mrs. Rabbit, grumpy Mr. Badger, thuggish Mr. Squirrel and so forth) who live in Old Tree discover the importance of the neighborly spirit only after their home is threatened with destruction. Together they successfully thwart two woodsmen, then celebrate their triumph with a party commemorated by an elaborate pop-up on the final spread. The prose manages to be both long-winded and breathless, and the set-up to the resolution feels cumbersome. But Brown's illustrations, which exude an old-fashioned sense of character and environment, transform the reading experience. Her evocation of the country setting and her manner of individuating each character evince a fine wit. Professor Owl, for example, cuts a Jamesian figure as he wearily stands in the doorway of his sunlit study, while Maggie Magpie's eyes shine with manic greed as she surveys her nest filled with “shiny, sparkly” purloined objects (she sports a gaudy necklace, too). The oversize format shows off the illustrations to their best advantage, allowing for plenty of action as well as attention to naturalistic details. Ages 4-8. (Sept.)