Cover Reveal Q&A: THE SURVIVOR TREE by Marcie Colleen and Aaron Becker
Survivor Tree, written by Marcie Colleen and and illustrated by Aaron Becker, comes out on August 31, 2021.
It’s based on the true story of a tree that was pulled from the World Trade Center wreckage and nursed back to health in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
I had the chance to ask Marcie and Aaron some questions about the book, and share the cover. So let’s get to it!
Travis: Aaron, how did the story come to you? What were the first thoughts you had after reading the manuscript?
Aaron Becker: My agent, Linda Pratt, sent along the manuscript. Though I’d been eager for a while to illustrate someone else’s story, I was having a hard time finding one that felt like a good fit. But then Marcie’s story came along. I knew immediately this was the book I was going to do. I don’t have a personal connection to 9/11, but that is what is so amazing about Marcie’s take on the material. Her words capture something deeper and more universal than the tragedy of that day. By taking the perspective of a tree, she lets us see history from a wider vantage than the human one, while also letting us feel something in ourselves beyond the more common narrative of that day. It’s not a story of terrorism or patriotism or righteousness. It’s a story of life and the will to survive so that beauty can be witnessed. I’m still in awe of her text.
Travis: Marcie, the text for Survivor Tree is spare and beautiful. I’m curious about how the text evolved from the first draft. Was draft #1 very different from the words that appear in the finished book?
Marcie Colleen: A few elements have carried over from the first draft to the published book. For example, the refrain (Bare, white, green, red. Winter, spring, summer, fall). I knew I wanted something to anchor the book, to represent the cyclical passage of time, to depict the beauty of the tree each season, and finally to slow the reader and allow them to breathe as they page through the story. For the most part, the refrain remained exactly as I had first written it.
And of course, the text was a little lengthier. Perhaps even a tad heavy-handed. It was tricky for me, at first, to balance poetry with nonfiction. The first draft definitely needed to be pruned. But I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write a spare, lyrical text even though I had not written anything particularly poetic to date. So, it took me a bit of time to find my voice in the piece. I had a preconceived notion of what poetry should sound like and so at first I mimicked that. Then, I shared an early draft with Jane Yolen and I remember her giving me this advice: Don’t try to sound like Poet Me. Write like Poet You. Her guidance allowed me to move toward the text as written in the finished book.
Travis: Aaron, the spread where to allude to the World Trade Center towers falling (where the word “fall” is the only text on the page) made me stop in my tracks. How did that spread come about?
Aaron Becker: I’m glad to hear that – that was one of the few images that popped into my head from my first read. I wanted to allude to the absolute violence of witnessing the planes hit the towers. There was something incredibly shocking and final and difficult to grasp in those moments and it seemed imperative to show them. So I painted the shadow of the plane on the ground, which a child doesn’t need to see if they aren’t ready. And I wanted the word itself hurtling towards the building, which again, suggests the coming violence without having to literally depict it. Meanwhile, the tree stands between the towers, completely unaware of the imminent tragedy. There’s something very childlike in that innocence, and I think it’s an innocence that we all lost that day.
Travis: Marcie, was there a part of the text that you ended up working on the most? Which part and why?
Marcie Colleen: The ending. It changed pretty much with each draft. I struggled with knowing how to leave the reader. Finally, I decided the last line should be simple. I wanted to invite readers into the present moment with a reminder that this tree’s story of resilience and strength is for all of us to be inspired by and learn from regardless of our connection to 9/11. It’s as much a story about the past as it is about today.
Travis: Aaron, was your process different for illustrating Survivor Tree? How did you make the artwork?
Aaron Becker: When I started my sketches, I knew right away this book was going to be made entirely by hand. Whereas in the past I’ve relied on digital tools to help plan perspective, design or even final painting, I wanted to let go of all that this time around. I wanted Survivor Tree to feel as human as possible. And this meant trusting the fallibility of my intuitive mark-making. My sketches were pencil on paper and my final art was watercolor on arches hot press with colored pencil.
Travis: Marcie, in your author’s note, you talk about being a high school teacher on 9/11. Did that experience inform your writing for Survivor Tree?
Marcie Colleen: Absolutely. Finding myself during such a tragic time in a position of being the “grown up in the room” yet not having any answers was quite unsettling for me. Up until then, I believed I had to know all the answers. It was my job to know. But on September 11, 2001 I realized we are all making it up as we go. And it’s ok to not know. And it’s ok to be scared. And it’s ok to share in that vulnerability with other humans…even kids. Especially kids. In writing Survivor Tree, I remind myself that there might not always be answers to life’s darkest times, but to look for the hope buried deep under the rubble. It’s almost always there.
Thank you Aaron and Marcie for taking my questions, and thank you to Victoria Stapleton for making this interview possible.
And now let’s have a look at the cover for Survivor Tree, publishing on August 31st, 2021 from Little, Brown:
About Travis Jonker
Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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