In the middle of my teaching career, I spent a few years out of the classroom in the glorious role of Teacher-Librarian at a large elementary school in Bowmanville, Ontario. For those of us who adore Children’s Literature, being a school librarian is about as good as it gets. Not only did it become my professional responsibility to read books aloud and promote literature at all grade levels but, it also became my duty to go shopping for new books to augment what was already on our shelves! Book catalogues from various publishing companies would fill my school mailbox so, a lot of my professional reading became familiarizing myself with the latest books on the market. There were a lot of reputable publishing companies vying for my attention and my school budget but, the company that I eventually came to love above all others was called Groundwood Books. The creativity, originality and quality of the books they published impressed me. The very first book I ever ordered from them still impresses me to this day. It was a Picture Book biography of Charles Darwin called The Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life is written and illustrated by Peter Sis. Peter Sis, originally born in what was then, Czechoslovakia but, now living in the United States, is an award-winning illustrator. His penchant for detailed illustrations presented in unique and creative ways is on full display in this story of the life of Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species. At the moment of purchase, it was unlike anything Picture Book for children that I had ever seen.
Darwin’s life experiences aboard the HMS Beagle, his meticulous record-keeping and cataloging of the new species of plants and animals he encountered; especially on The Galapagos Islands, the political fall out of publishing The Origin of Species and the personal toll it all took on his life are all afforded great care and detailed expression by Sis. Each new page is an encyclopedic exploration of Darwin’s exploits and discoveries. Consequently, The Tree of Life stands as one of those Picture Books best enjoyed in one’s lap, curled up in a cozy spot, so that every image, every position of an object, every placement of a word or a phrase can be savoured and relished for the beauty it possesses upon the page. This is a book meant to be read in standard, horizontal fashion but, also, upside down, sideways and even, with flaps that open to reveal the magnum opus which is The Origin of Species depicted visually.
I can remember the day this book arrived at school. That particular day, third period, I had a Grade 6/7 class visit the Library. This class was led by a teacher who believed in the importance of books and reading so, when his Library time came, he always accompanied his class and read silently with them for the entire period. Because this is what he wanted with his period in the Library, I always acted as the good role-model and read long with the class, too. This day, I read The Tree of Life by Peter Sis for the very first time. As those Grade 6 and 7 students sat quietly reading their books, I was sitting there having my mind blown wide open! What a wholly and completely different take on the traditional biography. I remain as captivated by this book today as I was when I first read it fifteen years ago.
Even though I stopped being a Teacher-Librarian years ago, I have still maintained my connection with Groundwood Books and continue to receive their catalogues in the mail at my house. The quality of the roster of books that they publish remains very high, in terms of the beauty of the writing, the artistry of the illustrations and the topical nature of the themes being discussed.
What a joyful time it was being surrounded by such amazing literature all day long, every day, in that school Library. Some times, I would find a quiet moment while I was there and I would play an imaginary game with myself in which the library was on fire and I only had time to save a handful of books before I had to evacuate through the door. The longer I stayed in that role as Teacher-Librarian, the more books I read and the harder it became choose which ones I would save as the flames licked at my heels. But, no matter when this scenario played itself out in my mind, The Tree of Life by Peter Sis, was always one of the books that I was determined to risk life and limb to save.
It is just that good.