Could it be? Might it be? Oh, please let it be SPRING!
Daffodils, robins, purple deadnettle, peepers, that red mist of leaves on the trees, allergies: I may be getting ahead of myself, but spring seems to be happening, and not a moment too soon for me and my kids. Somehow this winter has seemed darker, drearier, more endless than any winter before it — and stuffed-up sinuses or no stuffed-up sinuses, the sunshine and warmer days have been lifting our moods from well, utter crumminess to hopefulness. The kids are even eager to get outside and clean up the yard, which is a sure sign they are going stir crazy.
Yes, it's time to start thinking spring. And there is one picture book that keeps spring on our minds, even though there are still some dark and dreary days to go.
The first thing you will notice about Corinna Luyken's The Tree in Me is the pink. Not a soft, gentle pink; not an Easter egg pink, but NEON PINK, and lots of it. Pink cheeks, pink flowers, pink trees, pink AIR. Neon pink is practically bursting from the cover like, well, like happiness. And that's no accident.
Luyken's 2017 debut into the illustration world with The Book of Mistakes was a burst, an explosion, a revelation. Her illustrations were nothing less than a conjuring of the most imaginative and serendipitous parts of a child's mind; I can only compare them to the moment Dorothy sees color in Oz for the first time, or the first time a child tastes sugar, or that first sunny day when you can drive with the windows down. Her illustrations were what we want life to be and yet can barely imagine. They were magic.
The Tree in Me is no different, and again I feel like Dorothy seeing color for the first time, and it seems like that's true for Luyken too.
"My love for yellow never goes away," Luyken laughs. "This probably has something to do with living in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by so much grey."
The world Luyken creates in The Tree in Me is indeed a conjuring, a calling into existence of colors we aren't sure we've seen before, of trees, forests, meadows, and even sunlight that don't quite exist but should, of a feeling that we all want to attain but can never quite grasp.
The Tree in Me is another of Luyken's revelations. My kids (and I) want to jump into the pages of this book and stay there, just like Jane and Michael Banks jump into Bert's chalk drawings in Mary Poppins. But then there are the words.
Luyken's writing style is quite spare; at times there are only two words on a page, and at most there are thirteen. The Tree in Me is a picture book in the truest sense, but that doesn't mean the words aren't important. It is because they are so important that there are so few.
"What I've always loved is poetry," Luyken says. "So the stories I write tend to be more pared down. When I work with the words, I really like to cut out as many as I possibly can. When I start illustrations, I always start with color and how it is emotionally at the heart of the book; with words I start with sound and rhythm. That's why I love picture books so much. They are meant to be read out loud. And that's the thing, I spend the time crafting the words, and I KNOW they are going to be read out loud."
And The Tree in Me is a joy to read aloud. From the very first pages, there is no need for commentary, no need for explanation. There is alliteration and simplicity, words that in Luyken's brilliant arrangement are by their turn punchy or soothing, descriptive without being described. (Really, have you ever said the words "part apple" out loud on their own? There is no way those two words don't feel like a ripe, delicious apple. It's as if Luyken has found some new sort of onomatopoeia.)
Corrina's spare and deliberate writing style, and what I call her "wall of illustration" (just as the term "wall of sound" in music describes an unusually dense orchestral aesthetic, sometimes illustrations are just so full, so big and rich that there is no other way to describe them), have come together in a masterpiece in The Tree in Me. Read it once, and you will want to hear her voice everywhere, and have her images and colors splashed all over your house; you will again dream of what life could be and should be, and it will be magic.
But again, back to that PINK. That particular pink. The pink that caught my eye in almost a literal sense. How on earth did she find it? How did she come up with it? I just had to find out the story behind that pink.
"In all of my original sketches for the book, I was using shades of green. But as the visual story started to develop, I realized that the green was making the book feel too literal," Luyken says. "It was starting to feel like a story about a specific child and their friends and a specific tree ... and I wanted it to be much more expansive and universal than that. I wanted it to be a larger, shape shifting, timeless tree. But also? I grew up in the '80s and have a soft spot for neon!"
So, in these last sporadic, dreary, rainy, cold days of winter, I look out my window and see the weeping cherries beginning to look blurry with their own brand of pink and am assured spring is really on its way. After this winter, it really is like seeing color for the first time, and I know Corinna Luyken understands.
Juanita Giles is the founder and executive director of the Virginia Children's Book Festival. She lives on a farm in Southern Virginia with her family.