Review of the Day: Listen to the Language of the Trees by Tera Kelley, ill. Marie Hermansson
Listen to the Language of the Trees: A Story of How Forests Communicate Underground
By Tera Kelley
Illustrated by Marie Hermansson
Dawn Publications (an imprint of Sourcebooks)
On shelves now
A couple years ago my family had just purchased our very first home. It had a garden in the front and a nice fenced in backyard for the kids to run about. Not a month after we’d moved in, though, we were all sitting in the living room watching television when we heard a loud “THWUMP!” and then all the power went out. It appeared that our neighbor’s tree, two doors down, had been hollowed out over the years by a veritable army of boxelder bugs. After a microburst, the tree just snapped in half like a twig and fell into my backyard. I should mention that I had a rudimentary understanding of trees and how they worked thanks, in large part, to the podcast Radiolab. After the remains of what had fallen were cleared away, we most clearly had half a tree remaining, still very much rooted into the ground. Now if I sliced you in half at your navel, you’d probably have very good reason not to go on living much longer. Yet year after year I stare at this tree from my own backyard, flummoxed. Why? Because it’s still alive. Somehow, inexplicably, ridiculously, it’s alive. It produces leaves on whatever remaining branches it has left. The leaves change color with the seasons. And yet, we’re talking just half a tree here. Raccoons come out of its middle every evening to prowl. How is this possible? What is going on? And does it have anything to do with what’s happening under the ground? Listen to the Language of the Trees doesn’t specifically answer what’s going on with my particular tree, but it does provide the clearest, most concise and accurate information you could hope for about what’s going on under the surface in (I love this) the Wood Wide Web. With exquisitely clever art, this isn’t the first book I’ve seen on the subject of tree communication, but what I can say is that it’s the best written with the most useful illustrations to date.
Many people come to woods and forests for the silence and peace, little suspecting that there are scads of conversations going on right under their feet. When a single seedling pushes up from the forest floor it’s not as alone as you might think. Its roots connect with “a silky net of fungi” which stretch between the roots of other trees as well. This connection allows the trees to communicate danger, drought, pests, and more. The tree the sapling originally came from can send its little one additional food (but how does it know it’s its own?). The giant tree supports others as well with food and sustenance. Then, when it in turn is struck by lightning or attacked by insects, other trees pitch in, giving it what it needs to live. Backmatter includes more “Science in the Story” with photographs and supplementary explanations, as well as a “Science Connection” and sections on What We Know, What We Don’t Know, and other Activities.
I don’t envy author Tera Kelley the choices she must have had to make when creating a story this simple. There’s just so much information out there about the exchange made via fungi partners, and the temptation to cram it all in must have been great. I know that some trees fight back against instincts by making themselves taste bad, and are forewarned about such attacks by other trees. I know that this exchange made with the fungi is very much a kind of tacit agreement to share food in exchange for other wonders. Kelley zeroes in on a baby tree, possibly because that’s something a kid can immediately understand. Babies need help and there’s something remarkably comforting in the thought that even on a busy forest floor, where little sunlight comes and every plant is scrambling for nutrients, because of this close knit community and simple cooperation, a baby can still thrive. It’s a strong authorial choice for a children’s book.
Mind you, the backmatter is fascinating in its own right. A SEL (Social Emotional Learning) section is included, highlighting the fact that “the forest is a natural springboard for teaching about relationship skills.” But better than all of this, I thought, was the “What We Don’t Know” section. Honestly, I wish every single nonfiction book for kids including this kind of stuff. When I was young there was such a clear cut sense that a book of facts was of all the stuff we discovered, story over. Telling kids that there’s always more to learn is exciting in its own way. One thing I was sad not to see, though, was a Bibliography of sources. While Ms. Kelley is reliable, I’m sure, I’m always comforted when I see where an author has gotten their information and, even better, where they can direct kids who are curious to know more. A small listing of helpful websites would have been particularly useful (and I know the teachers using her suggested activities would agree). So, in lieu of recommendations, for those who are curious, I would like to suggest that they also check out the picture books Can You Hear the Trees Talking? by Peter Wohlleben and Be a Tree by Maria Gianferrari.
Part of what I like so much about this book is the structure of the storytelling. But what really made it stand out in my mind is how the art by Marie Hermansson clarifies what it means when trees share food or information. There’s a bit of it on the cover, but it really comes into its own on a page showing the small seedling connecting to the larger tree’s roots via pathways in the fungus. This “silky net of fungi” has always been the most difficult part for me to understand. Having this visual component really clarifies things, as does the photograph of the underground fungi web at the back of the book. Later when the big tree is in distress due to the insect attacks, you once again get this crisp, clear explanation in the pictures of how this silent conversation takes place. Visual storytelling gives science for kids a leg up.
This won’t be the last book to talk about trees and how they communicate with one another, you know. As more and more information about their ways comes to light we’ll undoubtedly see children’s books keeping up with the times. This is why I get a little sad when I review a great nature book for kids. If it’s rooted in science then it sort of has a ticking clock attached to it. At some point the text will become outdated. Fortunately, we have the book in hand right now and it’s a delight. If ever there was a moment to get kids interested in those big tall woody things outside their homes, this is it. It’s a book that makes you stop and think a little about things we take for granted every day. The trees may be talkative but at least now we’ve an ear to the ground.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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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