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I've been a fan of Margaret Atwood's adult fiction for years, especially the classic dystopian novel 'The Handmaid's Tale', so I was both surprised and intrigued to discover that she had actually also published a children's story back in the 1970's. Using my own children as a valid excuse to buy a copy, I picked up a recent Bloomsbury reprint from the Book People website on a bit of a whim. I was pleasantly surprised to pay just £4.79 for my copy and also to discover that it even came with an audio CD recording of the story being read aloud by Margaret Atwood herself.
Such is my respect for Margaret Atwood, that I would have treasured this book even if it had been a weak example of early children's book publishing. Fortunately, it isn't and the book is both a delightful nostalgic reminder of how books tended to look when I was a young child and a story that still manages to capture the interest and attention of my own young boys, aged two and five.
The story itself is told in a steady rhythm which makes it a pleasure to read aloud and to read and re-read in accordance with my two year old's demands. The tale features two simply drawn young children who have happily made their home in a tree. The children love their life in the tree but they soon to begin to realise the challenges of their outdoor existence when some beavers come along and destroy their ladder. Suddenly the lack of freedom offers a different perspective on their treetop home and they long to escape.
I love the simple language used and the way in which the words are spoken by the two children themselves. The sentences flow really easily thanks to a well balanced rhythm and the use of rhyming words both within and at the end of sentences. There is also good use of repetition which helps when reading aloud to very young children and is also useful when used as an early reading book for children beginning to read independently.
The real beauty of the story is actually the simple handwritten illustrations and the simplicity of the colour scheme. When my husband first saw this book he assumed it was a modern story and commented that it had been designed to appeal to parents, rather than children. I can entirely understand why he would think that, as the design is nothing like most modern picture books with their garish colour schemes and cluttered images. Knowing the true authenticity of this story and the reasons for its simplicity, only adds to the appeal. The foreword explains that Margaret Atwood not only wrote the story and illustrated it but also hand-lettered the clear and distinctive text to keep costs down. This introduction also explains the reasons behind the simple colour scheme, as it was too expensive at the time to use more than two colours, hence the red, blue and brown (a combination of the two) images that really add to the appeal of the illustrations.
The overall effect is undeniably reminiscent of the work of Dr Seuss and likely to appeal to fans (both young and old) of his stories. This book stands on its own merits, however, and I actually prefer the images of the children used by Atwood. Some of the drawings are really funny, particularly the images of the children wearing sunglasses and drinking lemonade, followed by them huddled under umbrellas and later clinging on to branches for dear life! These pictures really fit with the simple text and help to bring the whole story to life.
This book functions equally well on three entirely different levels. Its simplicity, authenticity and nostalgic qualities make it a book that should be appreciated as a thing of beauty by adults, especially anybody acquainted with her better known novels. I would still be won over by this story even if I did not have any children to read it to.
The story does still work as an entertaining read to captivate the attention of very young children. My two year old genuinely loves this story and its compact format makes it ideal to slip inside my changing bag to while away lengthy waits at the GP's surgery or elsewhere.
Its final benefit is as a fun and simple reading aid. My middle son is five years old and in Year One at school. I find the vocabulary and repetitive style of writing is ideal for his current reading ability, as he is able to recognise many of the recurring and familiar words and use the images and structure of the story to work out some of the less familiar vocabulary. As with Dr Seuss texts, the amount of vocabulary is restricted and there are no really tricky words with the exception perhaps of the inclusion of 'cough', although this is cleverly rhymed with 'off' which does help young readers to work out the correct sound. My five year old has spotted a couple of discrepancies within the story, however, pointing out that the children don't actually have to just eat leaves as this is clearly an apple tree and that the characters do actually have somebody else (an owl) to talk to, when left stranded in the tree!
The audio CD included within my edition is a fun but unnecessary edition. As an adult fan, I did find it interesting to hear Margaret Atwood's spoken voice. It also kept my two year old distracted (and quiet) during a long drawn-out journey the other week. My ten year old passenger was less than impressed though. Ever the critic, he amused me by saying that the voice wasn't 'using enough expression!' Mind you, by the time we had listened to the story on repeat around five times both he and I were ready to jab blunt pencils in our ears!
In all, this is a really beautiful and whimsical tale that has really stood the test of time. It proves that bright colours and gimmicky buttons and pop ups aren't always necessary to capture the imagination and interest of young children, even in today's technological era. This is one for every bookshelf, regardless of the age of the owner.
Bloomsbury ISBN 9780747594178
I actually had no idea that Margaret Atwood had written any children's books. I, and I would imagine most people, know her best for her adult fiction writing. I have a couple of her books lined up to read but read Oryx and Crake last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. She is a fiction writer though many of her books delve into the science fiction world and Oryx and Crake is a dytopian novel which I thought was both well written and full or surprises.
I came across Up In The Tree recently when I purchased a book from work called 1001 children's books to read before you grow up. If you've read any of my other book reviews you'll know I love quirky and weird children's books. I work as a children's bookseller and spend a lot of my time finding weird and wonderful stories I want to share with the children I work with and teach. I thought the 1001 book would help me to reconnect with forgotten authors and illustrators. Quite quickly I came across this Margaret Atwood book and was surprised to find she had written children's books too. I checked almost immediately whether I could order it and was pleased to find that I could.
The book has a little passage written by Margaret Atwood at the beginning which explains her thoughts on the book. Up In The Tree was published in 1978 and the passage written in 2005 so it is basically a reflection on her early work. She explains the print and illustrations process involved, she illustrated this book herself, and the primitive methods they used to construct the book. At the time it was too expensive to print with multiple colours so many illustrators were limited to two, she used red and blue and mixed this together to make a purpley brown colour. The effect is really kitsch looking and actually I really like it. It definitely is different from any modern picture book you would get and reminds me of early Dr Seuss illustrations which were usually black, white and one colour. It gives the book a certain continuity which I think it great for children and because there is a great deal of white space the colours really stand out and look just lovely.
The lettering in the book was also hand designed and printed. They really do look like hand drawn letters and the font varies and is accentuated for certain words. This adds a lovely whimsical and quirky factor to the book which I think children will really enjoy. It is also really helpful for young readers as the design of the lettering plays on the meaning of the word. The lettering sticks to the main two colours too, red and blue and I love the variation as it adds a really playful edge to this book which enhances the narrative.
The story is basically of two children who live up in a tree and love their life up there. One day their ladder is taken away and they cannot get down. They get rescued by a bird and decide to nail steps into the side of the tree, they live happily ever after up in the tree. The language in the book is simple and therefore perfect for younger children and beginner readers. There is also a great deal of repetition and really simple rhymes which are hugely beneficial for beginner readers as they encounter words they have already read and therefore build up their confidence. I would definitely liken it, one again, to Dr Seuss in the way that Atwood plays with language creating a fun plot and rhyme for the reader to enjoy.
I love this book already and bringing it home tonight have already read it multiple times. I cannot wait to try it out with the kids that I work with and also when I go back into my teaching practice. It is a thoroughly enjoyable and imaginative books which is illustrated beautifully. My only slight issue is that it comes in a rather narrow but tall format, which looks lovely but will probably become lost in my bookcase over time. I'll have to remember to dig it out from time to time.
Overall, this book cost me £5.99 and will undoubtedly bring me (and others) years and years of enjoyment.