"The Tree in Me" by Corinna Luyken (Dial Books for Young Readers, March 16), ages 4-8, 56 pages, $17.99 hardback.
STORY: Looking at this lovely picture book reminds me that these things aren't just storytelling devices: They allow kids to hold art in their hands.
Of course, books plant narratives and characters in children's minds that shape how they feel about their place in the universe, nourish delight in language, introduce metaphors — all that jazz. But one of the best things a picture book can do is to be art.
Not merely pretty, "The Tree in Me" artfully appeals to sense memories to convey an idea. It's quite a challenging idea, if you know your human history. Luyken's words grandly assert that everybody is part tree. It's a metaphor for human connectedness with nature. Kids aren't famous for understanding abstractions, but the author translates the abstract into images of joyful play, delicious delight, vibrant color and motion.
Kids will "get it" that they embody tree-like traits. We are physical; we are strong. We live in water and dirt. We thrash in the wind.
Luyken's text is deceptively sweet: "Because there is a tree, and a sky, and a sun in me, I can see that there is also a tree ... in you."
Her illustrations celebrate a joyful, colorful incarnation. Imagine standing below a saucer magnolia in March and looking up through its gray branches to the luminous, pink flowers: That's what the world in this book feels like, a symphony of rosy pinks, soft grays and golden tan.
The one color she doesn't use at all is the cliché for loving nature: green.
Read to Me is a weekly review of short books.