CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 25 . . . . March 2, 2018
The Little Tree by the Sea is the story of the tree that the city of Halifax sends to Boston every year at Christmas. Savvy readers will realize that this is not the only picture book released on this subject during 2017, and that is partly because 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. Readers should also know that this little book about a little tree deserves their attention.
After the Halifax Explosion, the city was devastated. Boston sent help in the form of food, doctors, and other supplies. As a thank-you, the city of Halifax sent Boston a Christmas tree. This practice began again in the 70's and has been an annual tradition since. John and Belle DeMont bring this story to life from the perspective of the tree, itself. There is a touch of magic in this story, as there is in many a Christmas story, but that lightheartedness, that whimsy, helps to even out the book in tone. The Little Tree by the Sea does not shy away from the topic of the explosion, nor does it give too many details for young readers. The tree is said to talk in whispers, but the rest of the book remains factual.
One of the things I found most disappointing about the book was the cover. While it does have a distinctly green and Christmassy vibe, it belies the wonderful colours, and even the artistic style, that lay inside. If the illustrations are an exuberant celebration of the colourful houses typical of life in the Maritimes, the cover is a solemn affair. It matches only a few pages from within the book, itself, in tone. The tree on the cover is nice in its own way, but I wonder if it may fail to grab the attention of some in the way a cover set in the daytime might have done. This is most unfortunate because the illustrations in this book are truly wonderful. The art style is distinctive, and the colour palette is well-appointed. The olive greens, reds, and golds evoke a feeling of the past while being vibrant enough to catch the eye of young readers. There are several pages on which white space is used to great effect. There is an energy and movement brought to life through Belle DeMont's line work, and she has done a good job of bringing focus to important elements of the story. Sometimes this is to the detriment of traditional understandings of perspective. There is one page in particular in which the people on shore appear to be larger than the boats in the harbour which are closer to the viewer, but this skewing of perspective helps keep the people the salient components of the image. In short: it works.
Like the images in this book, the words are simple. That should not be taken to mean that they are not effective. John DeMont has done an excellent job of managing to put tragedy into words a young child can understand. Many of the sentences are short and to the point, and longer passages are used judiciously. An element I really enjoyed about the story was the letter in the back, "To Boston with Love". It gives some more details on the specifics of the tree tradition and how it takes place every year. This provides adults a great opportunity to talk with readers about which parts of the story were fact and which were fiction, and it also makes it scalable in terms of age suitability. Readers can go into as much detail as they like with the little ones they may be sharing this story with. Children who enjoy learning fun facts will most definitely enjoy the facts on this page.
The DeMonts have crafted something special in The Little Tree by the Sea: From Halifax to Boston with Love. You can really feel the love and hope in the story. While tragedies are not always the first things that spring to mind when thinking of holiday stories, the juxtaposition of hardships and happiness often creates the most heartwarming tales. This would be an excellent addition to seasonal collections to help bring an interesting perspective to the collection. While not necessarily a first purchase, it is worth owning a copy, especially for any library looking for Canadian, and especially, Maritime content.
Alex Matheson is a children's librarian who hails from the Maritimes but is currently living in Vancouver, BC.