Cover of The Tree in the Courtyard shows Anne Frank writing in her diary next to a window through which we see a tree.The Tree in the Courtyard is another nonfiction picture book that uses fictional elements to tell a nonfiction story. Here, the story of Anne Frank’s experience of hiding from the Nazis is told from the point-of-view of the horse chestnut tree growing in the courtyard outside her hiding place.

The story is written in the third person but it’s clearly told from the tree’s point of view. Throughout, the tree is anthropomorphized:

The tree loved the sight of her [Anne Frank].

The tree dropped worried leaves.

The tree did not understand.

With the tree looking on, we see Germans invade the Netherlands. We see the Frank family go into hiding. We see Anne write in her diary, celebrate Chanukah, and fall in love. We see soldiers swarm through the hiding place. Ultimately we see Mr. Frank return alone from a concentration camp and we see Anne Frank’s hiding place become a museum where other children visit.

I think I would have been annoyed by the tree-as-narrator device, except that the tree is thoroughly grounded in fact. There was a horse chestnut tree growing in the courtyard while the Franks hid–Anne refers to it three times in her diary, in fact. Just as the book describes, the tree really did start to die after the house become the famed Anne Frank Museum.

Many strangers came to try to save her. They injected her with medicine. They trimmed her crown and cut sprouts from her trunk. They built her a steel support and collected her seedpods like gold coins.

Despite all the experts’ efforts, the tree died. But people planted the sprouts they had harvested all over the world (the book includes a list of ten spots in the US where sprouts from the tree are growing).

Just like the girl, she [the tree] passed into history. Just like the girl, she lives on.

This moving retelling of Anne Frank’s experience is paired beautifully with sepia-toned ink drawings.

The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window by Jeff Gottesfeld, illustrated by Peter McCarty. Knopf: 2016.

Children around a globe.


Every week I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

Cover of book My Heart Will Not Sit Down shows African child sitting in doorway of hut.Some picture books are straight fiction. Some picture books are straight nonfiction. And then there are a few, like Mara Rockliff’s My Heart Will Not Sit Down, that straddle that line.

As the author’s note explains, “In 1931, the city of New York received a gift of $3.77 to feed the hungry. It came from the African country of Cameroon. Many people in New York really were hungry at that time…[but] Even at Depression prices, $3.77 wouldn’t have gone very far in New York City. For the villagers in Cameroon who sent it, though, the money would have been a fortune.” This heartwarming story, based in part on the author’s interview with a woman who grew up in Cameroon in the 1930s, uses fiction to imagine how that real life $3.77 might have come to be sent to New York City.

The text and illustrations work together to plunge us into a distant place and time. We see “the grandmother with strong arms pounding cassava” and “the laughing girls who carried pots of river water balanced on their heads.” We hear a “drum’s quick, sharp beat” and  feel “the bamboo bed” which Kedi sleeps on “between her brothers and sisters.” Although the entire book is written in English, we hear the cadences of a different language and catch a glimpse of a different way of looking at the world. When Kedi hears of starving children in New York City, “her heart stood up for them in sympathy.” Her mother worries, “How can we send money to people whose faces we have never seen?”

The book works hard to create a sense of foreign otherness, but it doesn’t alienate. Rather, it stresses the theme of people worrying about each other and doing whatever they can to help others. As the Author’s Note says, “”As for Kedi’s belief that no one should ever go hungry, that belongs to the world.”

This would be a lovely book to read before a food drive. It reminds all of us that tiny actions matter.

My Heart Will Not Sit Down by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Ann Tanksley. Knopf: 2012

Children around a globe.


I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, hosted by Allyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy.



This wonderful book could be a primer on ways to make a picture book glow.

On the first page I already start to fall in love with the breezy, funny narrative voice:

In the old days, most girls came to America with a dream, but all Tillie Anderson had was a needle. so she got herself a job in a tailor’s shop and waited for a dream to come and find her. One day it rolled right by her window.

The story of this early female bicycle racer unfolds with rollicking, unexpected word choice:

Tillie dreamed of the speedy, scorchy, racy kind of riding

and with page turns that brilliantly build suspense:

Tillie had found that riding in dresses and skirts meant spilling, not speeding, falling, not flying. So…[page turn] Tillie used her noodle and her needle to make something entirely different from what was sold in the ladies’ shop where she worked.

I cheered for Tillie all the way through to the funny surprise ending, amazed and happy that such a remarkable woman really lived.

Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, A Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History, by Sue Stauffacher, illustrated by Sarah McMenemy. Knopf: 2011.