With the end of 2021 rapidly approaching, I thought it would be the perfect time to share a new book about the end of one thing and the beginning of something new. HELLO, TREE by Ana Crespo and illustrated by Dow Phumiruk is subtitled “A story about regrowth.”
When a wildfire comes roaring into the forest, all the animals and humans flee. But all the tree can do is wait. Wait for the fire to lose the battle. Wait for the animals and the girl to come back. And wait for the forest to be reborn./ Inspired by the 2013 Black Forest fire and told from the viewpoint of a tree watching its home destroyed, HELLO, TREE is about the kinship between humans and nature, and the preservation of the environment.
I’m so pleased to have had a chance to chat with Ana and Dow about their beautiful and hopeful book!
Andrea: Welcome, Ana and Dow! Ana, you say in your Author’s Note that you were inspired to write this story in 2013 after the Black Forest Fire in Colorado. Could you tell us a little more about the image that inspired you and your writing?
Ana: Hello, Andrea! Thank you so much for having Dow and me here. We’re so happy you enjoyed Hello, Tree enough to invite us!
Yes. Hello, Tree was inspired by the 2013 Black Forest Fire, which happened just about 10 miles from my house. My house was never in danger but being here during the fire and witnessing all the suffering and uncertainties was not easy. After the fire, I drove by Black Forest to see with my own eyes the extent of the fire. It was heartbreaking. Many of the trees were completely charred and houses were destroyed—often only chimneys stood. I stopped by one of those houses and noticed that the owners had written on the chimney: “We ‘heart’ Black Forest.” Although I don’t really know what was going through their heads when they wrote it, the writer in me imagined they were suffering for the loss of their home but also for the loss of Black Forest as it was—for all the memories of growing up in those woods, loving those trees, and for all they’d no longer be able to experience. That is what inspired the story.
Throughout the fire, I kept in mind a visit to the Rocky Mountain National Park, when I attended a Ranger Talk about the benefits of the fire. Of course, they were talking about fires that didn’t destroy properties or killed people. Still, I wasn’t aware at the time that fire was a natural part of a forest’s life cycle, and I was in awe of how nature behaves after such force. So, when writing Hello, Tree, I wanted to make sure that nature’s resilience would be portrayed realistically, which is why the story is told over a period of approximately 30 years. And it is also why there was a lot of research involved in the writing of a story that is only about 200-words long.
Andrea: What a tragic event to have witnessed. And that’s fascinating about the dual nature of fire — to be both destructive and instrumental to a forest. What was your research process for this book like?
Ana: While researching, I read a lot—both newspaper/magazine articles and scholarly journals. Once I was feeling somewhat confident about what I had learned, I contacted the National Park Services and interviewed some of their fire specialists. They confirmed my research and shared new details that helped the story become more realistic. Because this is a story told through the point of view of the tree, my focus was on what the tree would be witnessing.
So, what we see after “the fire lost the battle, and the forest was still” is what usually happens after a forest fire in this region—beetles come in to mate and lay their eggs, woodpeckers come to feast on the beetles. Later, mountain bluebirds will make their nests in the holes the woodpeckers carved. Meanwhile, the soil will absorb nutrients, seeds that need extreme heat to germinate will become seedlings, animals and wind will bring other seeds to the area, the sun will reach the forest floor and allow aspens and wildflowers to grow. The wildflowers will bring in pollinators, more wildflowers will grow, helping nourish the soil even more. More animals will return. As time passes, pine trees will grow taller, eventually blocking the sun from reaching the forest floor, aspen groves will retract, and very slowly, the forest will look more and more as it did before the fire.
But all of that takes time, and the effects of climate change are not helping—the more wildfires burn, the hotter Earth becomes, causing droughts and other extreme weather that fuel wildfires and make them harder to extinguish. It’s a dangerous cycle.
Andrea: Dow, how about you? It must have been challenging to make the main character tree stand out from the rest of the forest! Could you tell us about how you approached this issue, and did you have to do much research on ponderosa pines?
Dow: This was a challenging but fun project! I did have to figure out how to help this special tree stand out from the rest (I’ve never drawn so many trees in my life!). The manuscript mentions that she dressed the tree up, so I imagined fancy fabrics and ribbons on the tree and the girl in her own fancy outfit. And I decided that she left one of those ribbons tied to the tree, and this is the visual device for spotting our main character. The ribbon frays and fades as the tree grows through the story. Of note, this spread (below) appears in the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show as we speak!
I did much research on Ponderosa pines, including a trip to the actual Black Forest that inspired Ana to write the story. I saw charred trunks in clearings, the remnants of the fire. I saw wildflowers and saplings that came afterwards. And of course, I saw many full-grown Ponderosa pines that were spared. They are tall and majestic. I took many photos. I wanted to capture the beauty of the forest in my artwork!
Andrea: How wonderful that this spread is in the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show! Congrats! I love that the story is told from the point of view of the tree. Ana, was this always the case, and what prompted you to choose this unique POV?
Ana: Surprisingly, the story has always been told through the point of view of the tree. I found the very first version that was submitted to an editor in February of 2014, and the opening sentence was the same, except that the character used to be a boy. It said: “I met the boy when he was a baby, and I was just a sapling.” I have always been fascinated by trees, so as we heard of people and animals fleeing the wildfire, my mind immediately went to the trees, whose survival depend on some natural protections and pure luck. Also, telling the story through the point of view of a tree allowed me to show how the fire behaves and how the forest regrows through a close, detailed view that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
Andrea: There are a lot of different emotions in the story — happiness, fear, determination, sadness, and hope, to name a few. Dow, I thought your illustrations conveyed them so well, despite the fact that trees don’t have faces! Could you share how you expressed emotions in the illustrations?
Dow: Ha ha, that is correct: trees don’t have faces! Their most versatile parts of them are the limbs. I would lean the tree trunk one way or another slightly and would have it offer out a limb instead of a hand on occasion. But it is the combination of many things that magically complete the effect: Ana’s text showing us the tree as narrator, the details of setting for mood, and the facial expressions and body language of our human characters interacting with the tree. Some animal characters also set the mood – especially this image of when they run from the fire.
I didn’t want to make the tree a cartoon character; the story’s tender mood did not lend to blatant personification of a tree. So I kept the tree’s personality by way of images subtle. I think most significantly, the tree as narrator of the story creates the most convincing illusion!
Andrea: The subtitle of the book is “A Story about Regrowth.” Ana, although you wrote about a particular forest fire, I feel like your story could be an allegory for what we’ve gone through as a country the past few years. Could you share a little more about this theme and what you hope readers will take away from this story?
Ana: I completely agree! I think this story can be a metaphor for any trauma we experience in life—for those life experiences that, at first look, seem to destroy us but that end up simply changing us, hopefully for the better, even though we would have preferred them to never have happened. So, I certainly see this story as a metaphor for the collective trauma the past few years have caused, for how slow the healing process is, and for how that process depends on a lot of other variables that are often out of our control. Ultimately, though, Hello, Tree is a story of hope, and I hope it will help people see beyond the sadness of the moment and into what the future can be. It helped me.
Andrea: I hope so, too! And speaking of seeing what the future can be, I love that the book shows diverse people living and working together. Representation has been a big topic in the children’s literature community. Dow, did you consciously decide to depict the main human character of the girl as a person of color, or was it a choice made by you, Ana, and the art director together? Could you talk a little more about your approach to representing marginalized communities in your artwork?
Dow: If I remember correctly, the editing team suggested a girl of color. I agreed whole-heartedly! Representation is so important to show that the stories of marginalized people are important. too. We shouldn’t be marginalized, especially in our wonderfully diverse country. I feel a great obligation to bring diverse characters into my books and take every opportunity to do so. How lucky I am to work in the industry today, when our awareness of this need for diverse books has been growing and growing. We have a long way to go yet, but I hope we will get there in the years to come.
Andrea: What are you both working on now, and do you have more books in the pipeline?
Ana: Yes! The Spanish/English version of Lia & Luís: Who Has More? is coming out in April of 2022, and the sequel to it, Lia & Luís: Puzzled!, is coming out in English at the end of that same year. The books are illustrated by fellow Brazilian Giovana Medeiros and published by Charlesbridge. They are part of the incredible Storytelling Math series that mixes math, diversity, and the power of storytelling.
Saudade, a love letter to Brazil, written during the pandemic, is publishing in 2024. The book is being illustrated by fellow Brazilian André Ceolin. I am excited to be working with the legendary Neal Porter at Neal Porter Books/Holiday House. The book shows a conversation between a Brazilian-American child and her immigrant mother about the meaning of saudade and all the things they miss from Brazil.
I am taking this small break to work on some new projects that, I hope, will one day become books too.
Dow: I am currently working on final art for Better Together, by Ben Gundersheimer (Nancy Paulsen Books) and Last Flight, by Kristen Mai Giang (Levine Querido). Her Name was Mary Katharine, by Ella Schwartz (Christy Ottaviano Books), is about the only woman whose name appears on the Declaration of Independence, and it comes out next month!
I am also working on writing and illustrating a story inspired by a photo of my dad, who was a Royal Thai Air Force fighter pilot. This project is for Viking Children’s Books. And I have a few more projects beyond these. It’s been busy in the best possible way around here!
Andrea: Congratulations on all your upcoming books — that’s so exciting! Thank you both so much for chatting with me, and I hope you and your families have a very happy holiday!
Ana and Dow: Happy holidays! Thank you for having us, Andrea!
GIVEAWAY! Ana and Dow are giving away a signed copy of HELLO, TREE to one lucky reader. Please comment below by January 11, 2022 to enter.
Ana Crespo’s favorite pastime is traveling around the country, visiting some of the most beautiful places around. She has visited all lower forty-eight states and many national parks. In 2013, she was returning home from her native Brazil when she saw the smoke that indicated the beginning of the Black Forest fire in Colorado. Hello, Tree is inspired by what happened after. Ana is also the award-winning author of other six books for children, with two more on the way. Visit Ana at AnaCrespoBooks.com, on Twitter at @AnaCrespoBooks, and on Instagram at @AnaCrespoBooks.
Dow Phumiruk is a pediatrician who has found her passion in creating children’s books, including Maya Lin, Artist-Architect of Light and Lines and Counting on Katherine. She lives in Colorado with her husband, three artistic daughters, and a few small pets (including Basil the dog). Visit Dow at ArtByDow.blogspot.com, on Twitter at @DowPhumiruk, and on Instagram at @DowPhumiruk.