On February 2nd, I was invited to visit the Woodstock Day School – a very special private school in my area loved by many and attended by many of my friends’ children. I made my way through a labyrinth of little rooms in what was once a barn long ago. Children played happily with puzzles, their heads bent in concentration as teachers busily made preparations for the day. I was led to a sunny classroom, and presently about forty students ranging in age from four to seven joined me on the carpet.
This was one of the youngest groups I’ve visited in a long time. I had been informed that the classes had studied forests and trees, so I began by reading one of my youngest picture books Just Like Me, Climbing a Tree. This book is a rhyming poem that introduces readers to both ordinary and extraordinary trees around the world – and the diverse children who interact with them. Alliteration abounds as a girl in California “spots a spider spinning a web”; a child in South Africa “creeps along a crack like a chameleon”; or a boy in Guinea, West Africa “leaps to a limb like a leopard”. At the back of the book, more information is offered about each tree for curious or older readers. This group was curious! – but by the time we got to the end of the book, their restless little limbs were ready to leap and climb. We read two paragraphs, and moved on.
Next I showed my newest book, The Life of an Olive. This book is targeted for older readers from age 7-12 – but it is a marvelous book for children to grow into. It tells the story of a 2000-year-old olive tree in the Galilee (northern Israel), and the history that unfolds in its valley over the course of its lifetime. With such a young group I decided to skip the historical component, and focused on the tree and the many children who interact with it over the centuries. “What is a century?”, one child asked. “Why can’t you an eat an olive straight from the tree?” asked another. As I showed my research photos, my sketches, and the final illustrations that I painted for the book, many questions arose.
Olive trees are fascinating, with their miraculous ability to regenerate (even if cut down); their amazing longevity (2000 years or longer); and most of all, their unique interdependence with humans (who must prune them if the olive tree is to thrive and produce abundant fruit). The children learned that olives change from yellow to green to mauve to black as they ripen. They saw a shepherdess in the year 77CE (and learned what “Common Era” means) playing a lyre, and learned how I based this character on a friend of my daughter. They saw a mother and daughter fleeing from a fire during the Roman invasion of 132CE, and a mongoose waddling by as the olive tree is abandoned for almost three hundred years. They saw a brother and sister who fled the Inquisition, making olive mash cakes for cooking fuel; and a family from Belarus pickling olives in salt water in the late 1800s. There was not enough time to read the whole book, but the children loved these little excerpts!
Comparing an original illustration (gouache and watercolor pencil) to the printed book.
Every book has its “special challenge”, and I explained to the children that for this book, I had to patiently articulate the tiny leaves and detailed bark of the olive tree. Each illustration took eight to twelve hours to bring to completion! To give a taste of what this is like, we put a large piece of sturdy mural paper on the floor with the outline of an olive trunk drawn on it. With colored pencils and photos for reference just like professional illustrators, the children set about filling in bark, leaves, flowers and fruit. Together, they accomplished in less than an hour what took me many days!
The Life of an Olive has a historical timeline, a glossary, and two pages of facts about olive trees for older children – but the book may also be read in excerpts to young children. It’s a great book for sharing and discussion. I hope you’ll consider sharing this special book with your child!
You can order a signed copy of The Life of an Olive here. The paperback costs $10.50, and the hardcover edition will be available soon. Just Like Me, Climbing a Tree (hardcover, $16.95) may be ordered here. All my children’s books may be explored here. Also available on Amazon.
Special thanks to Pam Camara for inviting me to Woodstock Day School. You made my day! I would love to come back again and do some more reading and drawing with this wonderful group of happy children.