Our theme for the month of February is “plants.”
Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is probably one of the most-cited children’s books on favorite book lists. For good reason: its simple art style and impactful message are memorable for children and adults alike. When a person returns to The Giving Tree, it feels familiar, treasured, meaningful.
I’ve long reported a similar title as my childhood favorite picture book: The Balloon Tree by Phoebe Gilman. I was enchanted by the idea of a tree that grew colorful balloons, and… and I’m not sure what else. I remember none of the story and little of the art. The plot of another of Gilman’s books, Something from Nothing, lives more vividly in my mind: a man embroiders a blanket for his newborn grandson. As the blanket becomes worn, the grandfather uses the material to fashion smaller and smaller pieces, until finally they have only enough fabric leftover to make a button, and then, to make nothing at all. It’s a moving tale, as emotionally charged as Love You Forever from another Canadian author, Robert Munsch. But The Balloon Tree is elusive in my memory, so I am going to reread it.
Princess Leora loves balloons—relatable to my child self! (I was known to keep balloons until they looked quite sad.) Her father has been called away to Calloona, which is just two typos off from “balloons.” Leora is unsettled about being left alone with her distinctly child-snatcher-in-Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-looking uncle, the grumpy Archduke.
Her King father promises that the balloons work as a distress signal: if Leora releases a bunch from the castle tower, the King will return to her. I wonder if they have a peak-to-peak balloon release system, à la Gondor calling for aid.
Upon the king’s departure, the Archduke orders Leora locked away and her balloons destroyed. I get another sense of my affinity for this text here, as I detest the “Pop! Wham! Kablam!” of fated balloons.
Through a secret passageway (a resource I always desired), Leora escapes to visit her friend, the Wizard. As an adult, I also have a trusted wizard friend, so I can hardly fault this.
He instructs Leora to plant a balloon and recite:
Tickle the tree.
Blossom for me.
Yet amid the Archduke’s destruction, Leora can’t find a balloon anywhere. She resorts to sulking by a cottage where a boy, younger than she, produces a single balloon. He trusts that the princess has a better plan for it than he has. Some early-seeded fealty, I suppose? Perhaps at that age I also would have given my last balloon to a princess.
Leora plants that treasure by a tree in the castle courtyard, which begets the greatest image of the story: a brilliant glow of balloons blossoming like a hundred dawns. They escape as soon as they flower, releasing into the air and into the city in numbers too voluminous for the Archduke to slow. The bright illustrations are exciting, though the consequent environmental damage does linger in my mind.
The King returns upon seeing “zillions of balloons” and sends the Archduke and his men to the dungeon (without trial, of course). As the moon rises that night, the balloon tree stops polluting, but the treasonous dungeon-dwellers are tasked with blowing up balloons henceforth.
The Balloon Tree is fine. It was Gilman’s first picture book, and its jolly, shallow plot is supported by some captivating imagery. That being said, the art is never overwhelming. Gilman illustrated thematic borders for each chunk of text, and many of the story elements are told in vignettes; this book features both clutter and white space in ways that more recent children’s publications rarely have. I’m no expert on the subject, but I did work in children’s publishing for a time, and I can’t imagine this art style getting okay-ed at every level today. In some ways, I think that’s a shame; this art is honest, not flashy, not “cute and cuddly.” Yet it is also distinctly white, without a drop of melanin in all the kingdom. I find that choice more off-putting than the eighties-style illustrations.
I wish I loved this book as much on rereading as I did as a princess-and-balloon-obsessed child. I almost consider it a failing of my younger self to have favored this thin plot over more interesting, complex works, like The Giving Tree or Something from Nothing or my current favorite children’s book, I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. That stance betrays some of my limitations as an adult: kids like what they like. Some of them will engage with deep texts while others want the pretty, the fantastical, the meaningless-but-fun.
Text and overanalysis aside, I’ll always adore the image of the newly-ballooned tree. I hope a few kids are still seeing it anew.