In previous bestselling, award-winning books such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck and The Marvels, author-illustrator Brian Selznick has centered his richly imagined, deeply cinematic stories on children growing up alone and navigating worlds both dangerous and wonderful. Selznick explores similar themes in Big Tree, but this novel’s children aren’t human; they’re the seeds from a massive sycamore tree.
Louise and her brother Merwin (a nod to the poet W.S. Merwin) have spent their entire lives packed onto a seedball alongside their countless siblings, dangling from a branch of their enormous tree. Like all parents, Mama hopes to give her children “roots to settle down, and wings to bravely go where [they] need to go.” Louise is a dreamer, while Merwin is more of a pragmatist, and when a fire ravages their forest, the two must work together to find a safe place to put down roots. But the world and time itself have more in store for the siblings than even Louise’s wildest flight of imagination could conjure.
It’s not uncommon for middle grade novels to focus on the natural world, but Big Tree’s devotion to plants rather than animals sets it apart. People do make an appearance in the book’s final chapter, but even then, their presence takes a backseat to Louise and Merwin’s story, which spans millennia and poses provocative questions about the relative prominence of the human species when compared with the vast history of planet Earth.
Like many of Selznick’s novels, Big Tree is, well, big. At more than 500 pages, it’s epic and substantial, filled with significance, yet its text is spare and often feels like a fable. The narrative unfolds through both words and pictures, and some plot points are only conveyed visually. Exquisite double-page spreads of Selznick’s signature pencil artwork compose much of the book.
Louise and Merwin’s story is an odyssey, a survival tale and an invitation to think both philosophically and scientifically about the world around us. It’s truly awe inspiring, and it’s sure to prompt readers to bring a sense of wonder to their next walk in the woods.