I love trees. I grew up in forests and I notice them growing everywhere I travel. I’m fascinated with them and they’re many variations. So when I found out about today’s picture book? I couldn’t wait to share it with you.
Joyce Hesselberth is an author illustrator of Beatrice Was A Tree, Pitter Pattern, and Mapping Sam. In addition to children’s books, she illustrates for magazines and newspapers including The New York Times and The Washington Post. She also teaches at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). She lives with her family, two cats, and seven chickens in Baltimore, MD. You can learn more about her at her website.
“Beatrice Was a Tree” is perhaps the freshest creative nonfiction approach I’ve seen taken within recent years when it comes to books about the life cycle of a tree. In this story a little girl imagines herself becoming a tree and just how glorious her life would be without restrictions. We see what happens to the tree throughout the seasons, the animals that come and go, and the transformations the tree undertakes. It’s not only an ingenious way to get kids invested in the nonfiction matter, but it’s a great way to teach young readers about trees. This story makes them care about trees as if they were one! It’s a brilliant idea!
Me: This is your fourth book as both author and illustrator. Can you tell us about your book journey? How did this book come to be published?
Joyce: This book was based on a little tiny drawing in my sketchbook. I was flipping through to see if I could find any ideas, because I really needed another idea to pitch to my editor. One of the great things about keeping a sketchbook is that it’s a record of all kinds of things. I had drawn a picture of a kid wearing a tree costume, like they were in a school play. The sketch was something I drew for an editorial assignment about summer camps, so it had nothing to do with my book work, but the idea of pretending to be a tree was pretty appealing. Plus, I love drawing plants and I always try and focus on things I love to draw. So, the whole book was really just an extension of that little sketch.
Me: I’ve seen several books about trees and the seasons, but never one written with such a lyrical text. Was it like this from the first draft? How many revisions did it undergo?
Joyce: I love playing with words, so I’m glad that lyrical quality comes through! There is definitely an educational side to this book, but I think that it should still be satisfying to read the words out loud.
The first draft of this story was fairly different because it was told in first person. My editor, Virginia Duncan, suggested I switch it to third, and she was right. I think writing it in first person was a good place to start, just because it really put me in the mind of being a tree, but ultimately, I liked it in third person better.
I don’t really keep track of how many revisions it went through, probably four or five, if I had to guess. I tend to overwrite in the early drafts and then spend time deleting stuff.
Me: Your ability to break this concept of trees and seasons down into such a simple story is stunning. What made you decide to approach the nonfiction material in this book in this creative way?
Joyce: I think nonfiction concepts are such a great place to tell stories. One thing I’ve noticed about nonfiction is that it’s much more interesting for me if I find a character to lead us through the information. The same thing happens (in a very different way) with my previous book Mapping Sam. That book teaches kids about mapping concepts, which could be a pretty dry topic, but by following a cat around at night, it becomes much more fun to play with. For this book, my narrator could have just been the tree or maybe an animal that lives in the tree, but I wanted kids to relate more closely to the tree and feel like they could identify with it as a character.
Me: And it works! How much research did you need to do in order to write this book? What was one of your favorite facts that you learned about trees?
Joyce: Right! You would think that since the information is fairly basic, there wouldn’t be that much research, but actually there is a lot! Most of it never makes it into the book, or is just briefly mentioned. But it all informs the final result. For example, I spent a lot of time deciding what type of tree Beatrice would be. I wanted a tree with an interesting leaf shape, but not too complex. I wanted her to be a species that is native to my geographic area so that I could base the other wildlife on this region. But I also didn’t want to get too specific, because I want kids all over the world to relate to her. She ended up being a sassafras tree. They have three distinct shapes of leaves, they bloom in the spring, and they provide all kinds of food and shelter for wildlife.
One thing that I really enjoyed learning about was how trees communicate with each other through the underground network of fungi and roots. Suzanne Simard, a professor at the University of British Columbia has studied this in depth and it’s really amazing. In Beatrice Was a Tree, there’s a little nod to that on the illustration that shows the root structure of a tree. The text reads, “her voice echoed through the soil as she reached into the earth, drinking water.”
Me: Wow! I love that! Your illustrations are so fun. Their layout and design in the book are beautifully done. Can you tell us a little bit about your illustration process for this book?
Joyce: Thanks! I always like to mix traditional illustration with digital. I like the warmth that traditional media gives, so I started this project by painting big swatches of textures that I could use throughout the book. Then, I start cutting shapes digitally from the textures. There are thousands of leaves in this book. Fortunately, I discovered I love drawing leaves. There’s just something so pleasing about the shape.
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers or illustrators?
Joyce: Play with pictures and words every day! I started as an editorial illustrator for magazines and newspapers. I didn’t really start to explore making picture books until I was in my thirties and it took a while to get my first picture book dummy done. It seemed daunting to sketch a whole book, especially since I was used to quicker and shorter editorial assignments. But if you can just commit an hour (or even less) to it each day, you’ll be surprised how quickly it comes together.
Keep a sketchbook or journal. It’s a great way to collect your ideas. If you don’t have any ideas, just start drawing or writing the first thing that pops in your head. You can always go back and edit later, but sometimes a really exciting idea comes that way.
Also, it’s really important to grow your community of picture book people. That might mean going to a conference or finding a critique group. Whatever you feel comfortable doing is good. Just jump in!
Me: I grew up playing in the forest in my backyard and fell in love with the Sitka Spruce that would branch out above me to protect me from the rain. Did you also play with trees when you were young? Do you have a favorite type of tree or a forest with fond memories?
Joyce: Oh yes, I will always be a tree person. As a kid, I have fond memories of playing in the woods around our home, climbing rocks (especially the one we called the elephant rock), and following the creeks (they were really drainage ditches) for miles.
My favorite trees right now are probably the giant magnolias that we have in our front yard. Their leaves are over a foot long and they make the most magnificent blooms. I tried to propagate them this year, because I know they are getting old and won’t last forever. It didn’t work, but I’m going to keep trying. There’s something nice about continuing the family of trees that has been on our property for so long. I want to keep them going!
Aww! I love that. Thank you for visiting my blog Joyce.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, I cannot recommend it enough. This is an incredible take on an evergreen subject that has seen many writers tackle it well. It’s creative, lyrical, and whimsical in its originality. You won’t want to miss this one either!