CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 14 . . . . March 17, 2006
The catchy blurb on the back cover led me to believe that this story would connect a tree house with World War II. It does, but not in the way I expected. This is one of the “Go Bananas” books, a British series designed to connect children's first chapter book stories with the British National Curriculum. While the story is largely accessible for readers on both sides of the Atlantic, Canadians might not make some of the same connections that British readers might.
Tara has been sent to stay with her Gran while her mother is in the hospital and her father is working on an oil rig. Gran's little apartment is boring, and, at first, Gran won't let Tara play in the yard because old Mr. Barenstein (who lives in the basement suite) needs his peace. Eventually, Mr. Barenstein calls, saying that Tara is allowed to play there.
Tara and Gran go outside, and Gran compares Tara's visit with Gran's five-year stay in the English countryside during the bombing of London. They share the feeling of being sent away by their parents. That afternoon, they go with one of the neighbours to the store to buy vegetable gardening seeds and tools, and some wood with a mysterious purpose. No matter how Tara begs, Gran won't tell what the wood's for.
Gran takes Tara to the mall during the next day and out to dinner. When Tara wakes up the following morning, there is a tree house in the garden. There was a tree house at the farm that Gran had stayed at during World War II, and she wanted Tara to have one. While Tara is enjoying her treehouse, Mr. Barenstein visits her and tells a story about his little sister Hannah. The author never clarifies what happened to Hannah, yet implies that she died. This subtlety is one of the major differences between this book and many other World War II stories I have read- there is no mention of the Jews or the Nazis. The author writes no more than "Hannah was in another country, and there were no safe places there, not even for a little girl like Hannah." When I add that oblique reference to the typically Jewish name, Hannah Barenstein, I assume that Mr. Barenstein and his sister provide the story's only nod to the Holocaust.
At first, this jarred me, but, with time, I realized that this book just tells a different story. It's a simple story, and inclusion of the Holocaust and the plight of the Jewish people would stretch the bounds of the story's limited scope. I am glad that Mr. Barenstein is included so as to give children and adults impetus to talk about what may have happened to Hannah.
The bright watercolour illustrations are filled with movement and light and illustrate emotions more than actions. The story is very internal; there is very little action. Instead of changing as a result of her deeds, Tara becomes more pensive after hearing the stories about World War II from Gran and Mr. Barenstein. Change in the characters comes as a result of thought and emotion, thereby setting this book firmly in the realm of girl readers. The book also includes a few fact pages and a sprout-growing activity.
Jennifer Caldwell, a librarian at Richmond Public Library, BC, chaired the Fiction Selection Committee for the 2005-6 Red Cedar Award.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.