Friday, July 20, 2007

Tree of Cranes

Say, Allen. (1991). Tree of Cranes. Bostob: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 039552024X.

Tree of Cranes is the story of a little boy who comes home from a cold day playing near a carp pond his mother has asked him not to. The boy sees his mother folding paper cranes—it is tradition that if you fold a thousand paper cranes, your wish will come true—she tells him she may fold TWO thousand. Then, his mother feels his head and notices he is very warm. She makes him take a hot bath and go to bed after a bowl of rice gruel. In the meantime, she goes outside and digs up the pine tree she and her husband planted when the boy was born. As she begins hanging the cranes on the pine tree, she tells the boy of how when she used to live in California, there was a tradition of decorating a tree a certain day each year—a day “of love and peace. Strangers smile at one another. Enemies stop fighting.” She puts candles all over the little tree and lets the boy help her light them until it is a beautiful, shining tree. The boy asks his mother what she would wish for and she tells him just the promise that he never visit the carp pond again. The next morning, when he awakes, the kite he has “always wanted” is sitting next to the little tree. It was the boy’s first Christmas.

This is a beautiful and simple story of someone’s first Christmas. Not the Christian traditional experience of telling the story of the Nativity, but the essence of the festivity—the celebration of “love and peace” that transcends the original purpose of the holiday. The story seems to be sort of a mystery—we don’t find out for sure if it’s about Christmas or not until the end of the book—and it is told in such a way that sends the message of the fun and merriment of the season, but without being preachy or somber. It’s another perspective of the holiday.

Without the pictures—gorgeous watercolors with rich hues and fine black-lined detail, so vivid they’re almost photos—just reading the text, there is not much to suggest cultural cues. There is nothing exceptional about visiting a pond, folding origami, a mother who fusses over a child when he has been out in the cold, digging up a small tree, decorating it and waking up to a kite. The hints that the book is about an Eastern Asian place are very subtle, but you’d almost have to already know about that culture to catch the references without the pictures. Carp ponds, rice gruel, tea, sour plums, yellow radishes and the famous reference to paper cranes, are all clues as to the culture referenced. So, linguistically, the text seems to be fairly neutral, leaving the illustrations to do the work of cultural representation. It is so well done that while reading, most might not even catch the reference that the action takes place “seven days before New Year’s”—right at Christmas time.

It is in the illustration that most of the cultural cues are revealed. Asian gardens, sparse d├ęcor, the large wooden bath, the clothing, the boy using chopsticks to eat, the bonsai-cut pine tree and of course the obviously Eastern Asian facial features of the characters all point to the fact that this story is somewhere “other” than a Western setting. The question is, are these visual cues evident because they are stereotypes or because they are authentic representations to which we have been exposed and are used to? Or both?

Reviews (per

Publishers Weekly:
Heedless of Mama's warnings, a Japanese boy cannot resist playing at an ice-cold pond "filled with carp of bright colors." When he comes home, he is immediately treated for a cold, with a hot bath and rice gruel. His mother's attitude chills him more than the weather, though; he cannot understand why she seems to be ignoring him. Hearing a noise in the garden, the boy spies Mama digging up the pine tree that was planted when he was born. She brings it inside and decorates it with paper cranes and candles. It is a Christmas tree, the first for the boy, and the first in many years for his mother, who tells her son she comes from "a warm place called Ca-li-for-ni-a." The story is a poignant one, illuminated with finely drawn illustrations reflecting the serenity of a Japanese home and the quiet love between mother and son. Say ( The Bicycle Man ; El Chino ), who came to this country from Japan when he was a teenager, again exhibits a laudable sensitivity to Eastern and Western cultures--and to both the differences and the similarities between them. Ages 4-8.

When the young Japanese narrator comes home with a cold after playing in a forbidden pond, his mother ``barely looks at him'' and puts him into a hot bath and then to bed without so much as a story. She's busy folding silver paper cranes; later, she brings in the little pine planted when the boy was born and decorates it with candles and the cranes, explaining for the first time how she celebrated Christmas in California, where she grew up. The boy is allowed to light the candles, and next day he receives a gift--a kite he especially wanted--for his first Christmas. Say's exquisitely designed illustrations are as elegant as those for The Boy of the Three-Year Nap (1988, Caldecott Honor). Geometric forms in the austere Japanese architecture provide a serene background for softer lines defining the appealing little boy and his pensive mother. As in Say's other books, there is an uncompromising chill here from parent to child: it's true that the boy has disobeyed, that his mother warms and feeds him, and that in the end they share the tree's beauty; still, her longing for ``peace and quiet'' seems exclusionary, and her cold uncommunicativeness while preparing the lovely tree is at odds with its message. Beautiful, honest, but disturbing. (Picture book. 4-8)

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