Tuesday 14 July 2015

The Magic Of Trees In Middle Grade Books by Abi Elphinstone

I’m pretty sure Bella from Twilight had a vampire help her up into the canopy. I climbed up BY MYSELF here in Norway. Go feisty heroines.

There wasn’t a tree in my garden I hadn’t climbed by the age of nine. Wellingtonia, holly, ash, beech, sycamore. I went up them all – through the maze of jutting branches until I emerged into a world of buzzards and owls. I used to love that trees didn’t require maps and satnavs to navigate; they just asked for palms and toes and nerves. The holly was my nemesis – all prickled leaves, slippery bark and branches just beyond my reach. But it was in the biggest holly tree in our garden that my siblings and I built our tree house, mainly because we knew that adults wouldn’t make the climb up to find us. There was something secret and magical about our world inside that tree.

Dad scaling a hazel bush to find wood for my catapult

And every time I come across a mystical tree in a middle grade book I smile. They remind me of childhood adventures and of learning to be brave. They make me think of Dad scaling up hazel bushes to find wood for my catapults, of swinging from The Wibbly Wobbly Branch with my siblings and of huddling beneath gnarled roots to hear my mother’s stories about woodland trolls.

The tree I huddled beneath to hear stories about trolls

We charge around with our iPhones and jam-packed schedules and while trees only whisper and creak around us their roots can burst through walls and rupture pavements – an eternal reminder that there are forces at work far stronger and more elemental than our man-made world. My debut was big on trees – of Romany gypsies who slept beneath them and built treehouses half way up them – and I thought I’d take a quick look at seven other middle grade books full of the magic of trees.

The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe by C.S Lewis  

For Lewis, trees marked a gateway into a magical world. Beyond the wardrobe door lay a snow-capped forest and Lucy Pevensie’s first steps in Narnia were amongst the trees: ‘A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.’

Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren

Ronia learns more about life – about bravery, friendship and forgiveness – when she’s living wild in the forest with Birk than she ever did in Matt’s keep. She may be a robber’s daughter but out in the forest she’s a queen: ‘The treetops stirred quietly in the morning breeze, the cuckoos called, a woodpecker hammered at a tree trunk somewhere nearby, and in the other side of the river an elk family appeared at the edge of the woods. And [Ronia and Birk] sat there, feeling as if they ruled over everything – river and wood and all the living things in them.’

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Conor’s inner turmoil manifests itself in the form of a monster built from bark and leaves and moss. It is the yew tree in the graveyard beyond his house that comes to him with ancient stories – and helps him to grieve: ‘As Conor watched, the uppermost branches of the tree gathered themselves into a great and terrible face, shimmering into a mouth and nose and even eyes, peering back at him. Other branches twisted around one another, always creaking, always groaning, until they formed two long arms and a second leg to set down beside the main trunk. The rest of the tree gathered itself into a spine and then a torso, the thin, needle-like leaves weaving together to make a green, furry skin that moved and breathed as if there were muscles and lungs underneath.’

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien

For Tolkien, there is something timeless and majestic about trees. His Ents appear as ancient shepherds of the forest and allies of the free peoples of Middle-earth during the War of the Ring. They are, as Gandalf says, ‘the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth.’

One Wish by Michelle Harrison

Harrison uses the Spinney Wicket Wishing Tree, adorned with colourful ribbons, strips of cloth and dozens of different shaped bottles filled with wishes, as the central motif for magic in her book. Tanya assumes the tree is nothing more than a quaint old tradition but she soon realises a dark magic lies at the heart of the tree: ‘One wish only, understood? There are rules, so listen good.’

The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

The Faraway tree opened up multiple worlds full of adventure. With the topmost branches reaching into the clouds and with magical folk living inside the tree –Moon-Face, Mister Watziname, Silky and the Saucepan Man – Jo, Bessie and Fanny find themselves sliding down the slippery-slip and exploring places as extraordinary as the Land of Take-What-You-Want…

The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

The Whomping Willow acts as both a hindrance and a help in Rowling’s books. For Harry and Ron it a violent tree ready to snatch them up if they come within reach of its branches. But for Remus Lupin it disguises the opening of a secret passage leading from Hogwarts’ grounds to the Shrieking Shack in Hogsmeade where Lupin can transform into a werewolf away from the preying eyes of others.

My brother and I climbing beech trees

I didn’t know I wanted to be an author when I was a kid. I knew I wanted to climb trees, make dens and swim in rivers. My childhood adventures have built my stories and at the heart of them, always, is trees. I’m passionate about re-wilding children – about getting them outside to explore the incredible countryside around them and unearth the stories buried there. But I guess adults could do with a bit of re-wilding, too… So wherever you are, my challenge is this: find a tree, take a deep breath and climb up into it. You are not too old or wise or fearful. All you need are palms and toes and nerves.

DISCLAIMER: Please don’t climb a Whomping Willow. That will end in tears.

Abi Elphinstone is the author of 'The Dreamsnatcher' (Website: www.abielphinstone.com and Twitter: @Moontrug). 

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