The Red Tree: A Child’s Story, A Depressive Tale, and an Allegory All in One

Imagine not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. Not because you stayed up too late or the air is too cold – but because “the day begins with nothing to look forward to.” Forcing yourself out of bed only makes “things go from bad to worse.” You maneuver through a world that “is a deaf machine”; where “darkness overcomes you” and “nobody understands”. Ironically, you are on the inside – locked there by regret – looking out at the “wonderful things [] passing you by.”

Now, imagine you are a child.

In Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree, a young girl is the one going through all these machinations, these miserable feelings. The book jacket summary lists them as “inexplicable feelings”, which though they are, will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has had them. The swirling, at times, surreal illustrations Tan has created to accompany his text add an otherworldly depth that show their meaning perhaps more than the words can. Upon repeated inspection, you find more and more layers of detail and meaning.

This could be a story of a child trying to find her place in the world, which certainly can be daunting itself. I, however, saw deeper evidence of despair. Perhaps my dark lens of depression is translating the clues to match my view, but Tan’s story seems very much to match the trajectory of depression. This book is an amazingly evocative, yet straightforward treatment of a condition that words often fail. It would be perfect for children who may be suffering – either themselves or through someone close to them – to understand what’s happening and that they are not alone. My depressed self sees utter value in that. My paranoid mother hen heart breaks at the thought of a child suffering this way, scared that my own brood may be subjected it. I would call this required reading for struggling adults and extremely-valuable-but-hope-you-never-have-use-it with children.

Still, there is a thread of hope at the end of the story, that doesn’t always come with depression. Just as “the day seems to end the way it began, [] suddenly there it is right in front of you bright and vivid quietly waiting just as you imagined it would be.” In the book, it is a red tree growing from the center of her room that makes the girl smile. I wanted to shake the book and say, “But what is it? Why can’t I find the solution so easily? Just make it appear?” That’s when I thought maybe I was approaching this as a downward motion rather than from the bottom up.

I leafed through the pages once more, searching for the flashes of red I’d only slightly registered the first time. As the girl awakens on the first page, a red leaf is mounted on the wall above her bed. While black leaves swirl around her, the red leaf follows her through every scene. At times, it lies forlornly on the ground or is buffeted by the wind, but it is always there. When she returns to the quiet reflection of her room at the end of the day, there is a small red sprout, which quickly grows in the beam of light shining through the door she opens.

Though I didn’t realize it until I had reached rock bottom, that red leaf of the Holy Spirit followed me around the whole time. It waited patiently for me to open the door so I could flourish in God’s light and love. So instead of some magic trick I hoped to perform, healing myself, I just had to open myself to the guidance and care that was there all along.

How perfect that this epiphany came in time for this Good Friday. Even when Christ was at his lowest, He called out to the Father. He suffered so that we may have peace. And just as importantly, God never abandoned Him through all his trials.

Now I just need to be open to God’s uplifting power rather than the downward pull of depression.

* All quotes from Tan, Shaun.  The Red Tree.  Vancouver: Simply Read Books, 2008.


Extra Yarn

“On a cold afternoon, in a cold little town, where everywhere you looked was either the white of snow or the black soot from chimneys, Annabelle found a box filled with yarn of every color.”

It was a seemingly endless box of yarn; no matter the number of sweaters or hats or cozies knit, there was always extra yarn.

Annabelle converted town bullies with her rainbow thread. She led her dog, Mars, around on a rainbow leash. She clothed her naysayers in a prism of perseverance and accomplishment.

image from School Library Journal

The very nature of the town began to change.

And she still had extra yarn.

News spread of Annabelle’s wondrous deeds and visitors came from far and wide. An archduke wanted, at any cost, to acquire “that miraculous box of yarn.” No matter the price, Annabelle declined. The archduke arranged to have it stolen, but once he returned home and opened the box, he saw that it was empty. Hurling the box into the sea, he shouted, “Little girl, I curse you with my family’s curse! You will never be happy again!”

The current carries the box back to the shore where Annabelle and Mars sit. And once Annabelle retrieves it, its magic power is once more ignited.

A box of extra yarn is available to all who want it. We need not seek it out in a secret nook of a far-flung fiber shop. We need not win a life lottery. We need not spend all our riches in acquiring it.

It is there for the taking – if we have the right combination of thoughts and attitudes to unlock it. It opens easily enough; it is how we view the contents that determines the wealth and abundance of them.

We need the wide-eyed optimism of a girl that, despite dreary surroundings, can still see wonder in the world. And doesn’t question the where and why for of happiness, but wraps herself in it like a cozy, hand-knit sweater.

Under the Big Sky

Apparently I’m drawn to morbid and depressing children’s books.  Save a sweep of the memoir section on our walk in, the children’s section is the only one I get a chance to truly explore while at the library.  So perhaps it is some deep-seated need for adult content even if it must come in child format.

Ironically, I try to keep my ‘child’ selections from my own children, keeping them with my books rather than their stack of picture books.  But if they look like ducks . . . my kids expect them to waddle like ducks and inevitably find them.

One such duck is Under the Big Sky by Trevor Romain.  The main character is sent on a journey by his grandfather, approaching the end of his years, to discover the secret of life.  If he does so, the boy will receive all of his grandfather’s riches.  Not a bad carrot to waddle after, and so, the boy sets off, querying objects, animals, and people as he goes.  The answers he collects are rich examples of metaphors, which present wonderfully teachable moments for young readers in trying to suss out both their literal and figurative meanings.

Understandably, there is no one easy or straightforward answer.  Expecting that there was one, the boy becomes discouraged.  He finally crosses the world and many years, searching.  Upon his return to his grandfather (who, honestly, I was surprised had not died by this point), he reports that he has not found the secret of life.

“But you did find it,” said his grandfather.  “Your journey itself was the secret of life.  And along the way you have learned everything you will need to enjoy a full and rich life.”

And so the boy does attain his grandfather’s riches; in fact, he had them all along.  As do all of us on this journey of life. Apparently it takes an adult reading of a child’s book to remember this.  Who knows?  Perhaps if children do read books like this, they will discover the secret sooner.

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