by Charlie Moyler
As much as we might like to forget it, it’s fair to say Covid shaped our lives for some time. It’s possible (if not probable) that those years also shaped the way that you thought (it certainly did for me). Suddenly, we had reason to consider just what was important to us; how far we were prepared to reduce our lives; who we would prioritise spending time with IRL (did we even know the phrase IN REAL LIFE before Covid?); and how we would reach out to those that we couldn’t be with in person. Our cafés became delis (flour and eggs, anyone?), and our bookshops began delivering locally. Our pubs bottled beer in milk cartons for us to pick up, and our neighbours brought medicine to our doorsteps. And thank goodness for librarians, who forgave YEARS of overdue book fees. We rethought every aspect of our lives, and we were forced to slow down and really appreciate the small things.
The Tree Next Door was inspired by the good that came out of that time. Of course, there was much pain and heartbreak during the Covid years, but as the children who were once babies in slings during the first lock down start school this year, let’s give them the best of what we learnt – not the worst of it! And for me, seeing how local communities rallied around each other throughout the pandemic, there certainly is beauty to be celebrated.
The Tree Next Door centres around a garden through the seasons, and how a community of people is linked by their love of a tall tree that straddles the borders between their gardens, houses, and apartments. A young girl befriends the neighbour whose garden the beautiful tree grows in. The neighbour is generous and nurturing, as well as green fingered. And the girl, over time, learns how to do the same through the example that is set – how to think of others, to nurture community, and to celebrate and respect nature.
Nature plays a huge role in the book, just as it did during the lockdown years. How many of us fell in love anew with the views of trees through our windows; the parks that we exercised in; and, if lucky enough, our gardens? The transformations between the seasons have never seemed so beautifully revealed as during those years. Small moments of change, noticed with grateful hearts as time passed so slowly inside.
All of this is explored in the beautiful detail that Martin Stanev includes in his illustrations in the book. I was lucky enough to art direct the book, as well as write it, and it was important to me to find an artist who could really reveal the beauty in the changing seasons; someone who would relish the opportunity to create evocative images of a green yet urban space, full of human interactions, quirky details, and hidden plot lines. And, whilst not being explicitly a Christmas story, ending with a festive, warming, and emotional finale.
My initial correspondence with Martin reflects this… “we are looking for a nostalgic and evocative feeling” – “we’d like it to have a long shelf life, and not be too tied to one season, whilst also wanting to have a festive, life-affirming spirit that culminates in the 'Christmas but not Christmas' ending” – “ our aim is to have decorative and rich illustrations, but also to celebrate moments of simplicity and reflection.”… and wow, did he deliver.
The book, if you are lucky enough to read it aloud with a child of 4, 5 or 6 years old, somehow, for all its ‘quietness’, grabs their attention. Talk to them about what they see, and they are hooked. The Spring, Summer, Autumn spreads, in particular, hold some kind of power over a little person’s mind. At one reading, a 5-year-old audibly gasped as Martin and I turned to Spring, revealing the tree in a glorious double page spread. Then take the child on a journey, hunting out the changes that they see, not just in the tree, but through the windows and in the gardens around it. There’s a baby who gets a little older with each turn of the pages. A nest of bird’s eggs that hatch. Neighbours sharing produce from the garden. And my favourite secret mini story; a couple who fall in love, and by the final spread, are expecting a baby.
In terms of activities, beyond searching the illustrations for beautiful details, one that I highly recommend is acting out the change from Autumn to Winter, celebrating the tree in its humblest form, and thinking of how it might cheer the community around it.
Creating something beautiful can have a positive impact on our mental health. Collaborating with others, making connections, and being outwardly focused, also does the same. And so does being in nature. The pandemic taught us so. So why not combine them and celebrate community, nature and beauty?