This Very Tree: A Talk with Sean Rubin About the Survivor Tree in NYC
New York City allures illustrators. Since the publishing industry settled there, various artists over the decades have made their mark by depicting the city on the page of children’s books. From Maurice Sendak to Ludwig Bemelmans, from Faith Ringgold to Hilary Knight, it has served as muse. In many ways, it’s like a character you can interpret in a million different ways.
When I lived in NYC I became very fond of artists that could depict the city correctly. Some don’t care. They’ll slap together a subway system that makes no sense or put unbarred windows on first floor apartments without so much as a by your leave. But Sean Rubin? He cares. He cares and it shows. Back in 2017 he published the magnificent Bolivar, a graphic novel love letter to the city. In it, he could meticulously depict everything from City Hall to Central Park with some serious cross-hatching.
And now he’s back. Now by some quirk of fate, 2021 is seeing three different picture books come out about a certain, singular tree that survived the fall of the Twin Towers (BRANCHES OF HOPE: THE 9/11 SURVIVOR TREE by Ann Magee, ill. Nicole Wong and SURVIVOR TREE by Marcie Colleen, ill. Aaron Becker). Sean’s book, THIS VERY TREE, pulls out those same skills he sharpened on BOLIVAR then looks at what it means to survive a disaster. The result is a book that honors NYC, the survivor tree, and discusses seriously the nature of trauma.
I had a chance to talk to Sean a bit about the book.
Betsy Bird: Sean! Thanks so much for coming by to answer some questions about your book. So let’s start off with the basics of the story here. Tell me a little about the book itself. What’s the true story behind it?
Sean Rubin: Betsy! Always a pleasure to talk to you. THIS VERY TREE is about a Callery pear tree that was planted in the plaza beneath the Twin Towers and was buried by the towers collapsing in the 9/11 attacks. Remarkably, it was still alive when it was unearthed about a month later–it was the last living thing to be rescued from the pile. The people who saved it sent it up to a nursery in the Bronx, where it was replanted and brought back to health over nearly a decade. It was then packed on a truck, returned to Lower Manhattan, and planted permanently in the 9/11 Memorial among the white oaks that form a sort of small forest there. It’s still there today.
Understandably, the tree has since become a symbol for hope and renewal in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The book explores that story–how the tree goes from a part of the urban landscape to an important symbol–but it also tries to envision what the tree thought and felt both before, during, and after the attacks. Which is to say, the book is from the tree’s imagined perspective as a survivor of trauma.
BB: From what I understand your wife is a clinical psychologist with specialized training in trauma assessment and treatment. Did you run this book by her in any way while you were creating it? And what’s her opinion of the final product?
SR: Lucy gives me notes on everything I do before it goes out; frankly, at this point, she could probably edit and art direct professionally if she chose to. What’s unusual about this project is that the whole structure of the book came out of a conversation she and I had in the very early creative stages. I was dealing with a little writer’s block, so I asked her, “If the tree was a patient that came to your practice, what would you expect it to say? How would it feel? What would be its trajectory in therapy?” Her answers drew on her training at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center in Charleston, South Carolina. In the end, the tree’s imagined experience draws heavily on empirically supported insights about the nature of trauma and trauma recovery.
As for Lucy’s opinion, I asked her!
“Of course I’m biased, but I think the finished book is remarkable–it’s not easy to write a book about violent and tragic events that fully acknowledges the devastation of those events but still feels gentle and hopeful. And of course I appreciate the accurate depiction of post-traumatic responses in the book (e.g., the tree’s initial emotional withdrawal from others and heightened sensitivity to reminders of the trauma). If the children (or adults) reading this book have been through a traumatic event, I think they will be able to see echoes of their experiences that honor the ways these events have altered their lives.”
BB: Thank you, Lucy. And Sean, tell me about some of the choices you made in creating this book. What did you absolutely want to include? And what did you want to avoid putting into the book at all?
SR: Instead of a traditional title page, the book opens with an E.B. White quote from “Here is New York,” which alludes to an old tree as a metaphor for New York City, and mentions “the cold shadow of the planes.” For White, those places would have been Nazi and later Soviet bombers. The essay was written in 1949, but it was sort of rediscovered by many people after 9/11 because of that reference. The quote ends with the title of the book, “This Very Tree.”
I absolutely wanted to include that quote. I love that essay by White, and in fact when my agent, Marietta Zacker, and Christian Trimmer, my editor, pitched this book to me, I submitted a proposal that used that quote. When I asked Christian what he thought about including the quote later, he told me he wanted it up front and center… which was wonderful, because that’s exactly what I wanted.
As for what was left out, Christian and I had a number of conversations about what the tree would and wouldn’t know–for example, the tree never ties her experience to the idea of national tragedy, not because I didn’t think that idea is important, but because I couldn’t imagine the tree had any idea what country she lived in. She also doesn’t really understand what happened in a practical sense, let alone in a political one- the only thing that she really knows is that she was in sunlight one minute and in darkness the next.
The tree’s limited perspective gives us access to an essential aspect of that day that can sometimes be overshadowed, namely that 9/11 was also a deeply personal and local tragedy. My goal with THIS VERY TREE was to zoom in as closely on that perspective as possible.
BB: Was there something you wanted to put in the book that simply didn’t fit? Or something that was left on the cutting room floor?
SR: There was a sort of telling incident during the tree’s stay in the Bronx that I alluded to in the backmatter, when it was uprooted and knocked over in a storm a little before it was replanted at the memorial. It might have been interesting to actually draw that, letting the tree see that something ‘bad’ could happen again and she could survive regardless, but we were already pushing 50 pages, so I saved it for the author’s note.
BB: Have you had a chance yet to visit the tree yourself personally?
SR: I’ve been back to the World Trade Center, but not specifically to visit the tree. Yet. One of the sad ironies of this book is that I began drawing it right as the lockdowns started in 2020, and so I haven’t actually been to Manhattan in over a year. We had a big research trip planned. My editor, Christian, joked that he made sure he found an illustrator who knew New York City well enough to draw it remotely. It also happened that the first handful of spreads covered a time span from the 1970s to 2001, which required working more from personal memory and photographs than in-person research. It was bittersweet to revisit that New York, albeit in pictures.
Of course, I’ve imagined an eventual encounter with the tree. Still, after nearly a year empathizing with the tree, I have no idea what sorts of emotions will actually come up when I see her in person (tree?). I’m sort of nervous about it.
BB: How do you see this book being used with kids and families, ideally? What does it mean to you personally?
SR: When my oldest was around six, I can remember trying and mostly failing to explain 9/11. One of the reasons I was attracted to this project was because I saw the story as an age-appropriate way to discuss what happened with children. Lucy and I are working on ways to emphasize that on the digital “tour,” basically assuming we’ll be talking to parents directly about how to talk about 9/11 to kids and about trauma generally. Lucy has read the book to our own kids, and it’s definitely opened up those kinds of conversations, for which I’m grateful.
Personally, the book was an opportunity for me to work through my own feelings about 9/11, which was very meaningful to do. The research also led me to talk to my cousin Stephen, who was in charge of site safety on the “Pile” from October 2001 to March 2002 (he’s mentioned in the dedication), and it was a privilege for me to hear him talk about his experience at length for the first time. The tree’s words when she’s buried under the rubble were heavily inspired by that conversation.
Something I’ve learned in the past year is that a lot of people actually want to talk about that time, they just don’t know how to exactly. I hope the book continues to create safe spaces and opportunities to talk about these things, for both children and adults.
I would like to thank Sean and Lucy for taking the time to discuss not simply this book, but the role that literature plays when relating a traumatic event. This Very Tree is out May 11th in bookstores and libraries everywhere.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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