Rina Singh (writer) and Helen Cann (illustrator), A Forest of Stories (Barefoot Books, 2003)

The goal of A Forest of Stories by Rina Singh and illustrator Helen Cann is to raise affection for and awareness of trees as living things and vital to our world. The book is comprised of seven illustrated stories about trees from around the world; four are folktales retold, and three are original. All are prefaced with an illustration of the tree and a helpful description of its properties.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit and since I know next to nothing about trees, found it to be educational. Also, it succeeded in making me feel more warmly towards trees, which like most people I pretty well take for granted. The stories are well written, and although there is a great deal of violence and tragedy each does end happily; a must for a children's book.

My favorite story, and the happiest of them all, is "The Fig Tree," an original Jewish folktale that tells the story of a simpleton who is sent off by his family and told not to return home until he has made something of himself. Thanks to a leaf from a magical fig tree attaching itself to his sandal, the young man gains temporary wisdom just long enough to befriend a king, marry his daughter, and even please his parents.

The most effective story in terms of inspiring affection and appreciation for what trees really can do for us on a personal level is “The Chestnut Tree.” A young Japanese girl named Aiko must walk an hour each way to work to support her widowed mother. Her job and the everyday trek are exhausting, and halfway between work and home there is a chestnut tree that she often rests under. As years pass, she begins to feel as though she gains strength from the tree, and that they are good friends. Eventually, the great tree is felled in order to build a boat, but first manages to see to it that Aiko meets and marries a prince.

As good as the text is, the illustrations by Helen Cann are what really make this book effective. At first glance, I actually found the artist's style to be flat and uninteresting. However, as I was reading the stories I found myself feeling much more emotion than was actually inspired by the text and realized, as I looked with more intent at the illustrations, that I was wrong in my first assessment. Each of the trees at the beginning of the stories appears to be almost human. Limbs that look like arms reach out and up, drooping branches seem to be actively embracing a man sitting in the shade of one tree, and another tree appears to be dancing. As for the human characters, they exhibit a great deal of emotion in their body language and facial expressions. Love, despair, joy, exhaustion and more are almost palpable.

Due to the disturbing nature of some of these stories, I wouldn't recommend this for bedtime reading or for very young children. There is no age recommendation on this book, but I think it's ideal for a classroom environment, third grade and up.

[Christine Doiron]

Visit Barefoot Books Web site to read more about Rina Singh and Helen Caan