Dr Gary Crew is a Associate Professor in Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast. He was written many books for all ages- from picture books to YA novels, and more recently an adult novel called The Children's Writer. I've still really only read his picture book end of the spectrum really, which have been for school age children rather than preschoolers. Gary Crew often has a strong environmental theme in his writings, his passion for our natural world is clear. Dr Ross Watkins the illustrator is also a lecturer in Creative Writing, but he does an excellent job here as illustrator- The Boy who Grew into a Tree is one of the most beautiful books I've seen in a long time. So beautiful that I bought it without even thinking twice about it, which is I guess the purpose of book design.
I'm not sure if I had heard of this book before I found it in a bookshop, I am always intrigued to see a new Gary Crew title, and this one is such a beautiful object that I had to buy it then and there. That was a few months ago. Today I got around to reading it.
It's a very odd story. Perhaps the strangest story that I've yet read from Gary Crew. So strange that I wondered if I should tell you about another book first, but that would only delay things even further. This isn't a bad story by any stretch, just rather unusual.
An old couple move from an unnamed Old Country "to make a new life". They feel unwelcome in their new land and so forsaking the townspeople they build a stone hut in the mountains. There they eek out a rather marginal but happy existence, the husband gathering ferns for the townsfolk to stuff their pillows, and the wife by gathering herbs and mushrooms which she uses to make potions and ointments. She is suspected of being a witch, but her remedies are still sought after.
The old woman becomes pregnant, and gives birth to a son. A silent son, who does indeed grow into a tree. It's a beguiling exploration of the cycle of life, and the importance of preserving our natural landscapes.
I was a bit perplexed on finishing The Boy Who Grew into a Tree, but happily found the Teacher's Notes provided by Penguin.
Gary’s writing has been greatly influenced by the Australian Nobel Prize winning novelist Patrick White. In several of his novels—The Tree of Man (1955) and Voss (1957)—White uses the metaphor of the Australian landscape to represent character traits of his fictional personae. In The Boy Who Grew into a Tree Gary has used the rugged Australian bush to portray the characters of Arbour and his human parents, although the bush itself is Arbour’s metaphorical parentage.
Ahhh. That makes a vast amount more sense. Although it is thankfully blindingly more accessible than White.
The Boy Who Grew into a Tree is such a lovely book to hold and ponder too. Hardback, which is a bit of a novelty for a start. The cover has been antiqued, made to look like an old cloth bound book that has been lurking in a second hand bookshop for years. The paper is not white, but has that tea stained look of an ageing book. The illustrator added to this feel as Ross Watkins choose to use reproductions of 19th century naturalist illustrations, and public domain sixteenth century images of printing press technologies from fromoldbooks.org. He thought about books as artefacts while creating it, and the book you hold in your hand is "a celebration of the book as a meaningful object".
The format is interesting too. A small book, it is obviously illustrated, but clearly not aimed at young picture book readers. The Teacher's Notes tell us that the creators view The Boy Who Grew into a Tree as a graphic novel rather than a picture book. Many recent books blur these distinctions of course. I guess it doesn't fit my notion of a graphic novel, which I think of as more graphic rather than novel (although I must admit that I haven't read all that many of them), whereas here text is dominant.