REVIEW in NB READER 2005.
Almost thirty years after its first publication, Up in The Tree is being re-issued by Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press. They’re calling it vintage Atwood.
The word 'vintage' is misleading if it brings the smell of mothballs to mind. It’s somewhat reductionist in this case too. Then again, my response is (contextually) biased when it comes to children’s books in general and this book in particular.
Context is almost everything.
Up in the Tree is almost as 'pure' as the Arctic air in Nunavut. This is exactly where I had the amazing opportunity to work with Atwood: to watch as she read the book to Inuit women.
It’s Atwood at her authentic best if one values children’s literature and the oral tradition as much as any literature. Certainly, those of us in that particular tent did.
The oral tradition in children’s verse and early childhood literature has always, is now, and forever will be dependent upon the human voice and a community of listeners to have its life.
Up in The Tree, then and now, is a gem of a book in that tradition.
Furthermore, it does what the best children’s books can do when read aloud: in the moment of the telling of the poem or the story there is the creation of a safe place.
I was there. I saw this magic happen. We forgot about how far we were from civilization and how close we were to the polar bear.
Up in The Tree does have a retro appeal, in one sense. The rhythms are slightly reminiscent of the good doctor himself, Theodore Suess Geisel. We live in a tree/way up in a tree / It’s fun in the sun / A pain in the rain. But we both have umbrellas way up in the tree!
There are also echoes of Go Dog Go! – a classic from this era. Hey ho, Off we go! It’s Tree party time!
Two adorable googly-eyed playmates frolic in their favourite tree. They hang on tight when the wind blows; they eat pancakes and sip tea until they realize they’re stranded because their ladder has been eaten by a…well that would spoil THE PLOT.
Are we stuck here forever in this horrible tree?
The two friends hug each other close, tears in their eyes. We are a little frightened for them. "We’ll have to eat leaves/ up here in the Tree," they fear. With some help from some vigilant brave ones, they are saved, discover a longing to return to their tree. Again, there is a solution.
They work hard hard, find a way back to their home in the tree and appear fearless, both now snug and safe enough to dream.
Text and art complement and complete each other in a fine balance. Atwood more than rises to the teetery- tottery challenge picture books present.
In a forenote, Atwood states because this book was produced before computer, "the techniques were primitive and the results look a little primitive too." Maybe. But primitive Canadian folk art is valuable. Thanks to Groundwood this could be a collectable—not just because it’s Atwood. Because it still rocks.
Under the big tent’s dome in the Somebody’s Daughter program, Atwood showed us the dedication page. FOR JESS. She not only wrote Up in the Tree for her daughter she "illustrated it and hand-lettered it as well!" Why? Not just because she could (she’s an artist also) but because she pretty much had too. To save on costs. In 1978, there was "a widespread belief that it was too expensive and risky to publish a children’s book in Canada." For those not up on the history of Canadian Children’s Literature, Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie was published in 1974. So, it was "very early days."
To paraphrase C.S Lewis, there are three ways of writing for children, one bad way and two good ways.
The bad: to write for children as "a special department of giving the public what it wants."
The first 'good' way is to write for a specific child.
The second 'good' way consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art – form for something you have to say.
What does Atwood say if anything, in Up In the Tree?
If one cares enough to look closely enough in excellent books for children, one can always see eternity in a grain of sand. There are, of course, in the words of Walter De La Mare, "As many different meanings as there are minds."
Some folks will be able to hear in this UNI- Verse of Up in The Tree whether intentional or not, a familiar refrain: here, let me offer you some wilderness tips.
I listened and heard: Go out a limb and dream, preferably, with at least one good friend.
This book is proof that technology makes things different not better; that so much can be said with so little; that Atwood has a tender mother- heart as well as intrepid trail blazing spirit.
Also: actions speak louder than words. Even Atwood’s.
When the polar bear looked as if he might be charging our camp she called to me. "Run! Come on!" She held out her hand. She’s a fast runner. All I could do , all any of us can do, who come after, is try to follow, not in her footsteps exactly. That would be impossible and also not the point. But we can be grateful, inspired, lend a hand to others, and maybe leave some footprints behind of our own as we go out on a limb—up a tree of our own. And dare to dream.