For the selections thus far in our children’s book club, if I didn’t already own the book, then neither did my library, and I had to request it through Interlibrary Loan. But the library did have The Tin Forest. I suspect it had something to do with the sticker on the cover identifying it as a Reading Rainbow book.
(Can you hear the theme song in your head? (If not, listen now! Don’t you feel happier?)
Hosted by actor LeVar Burton, Reading Rainbow ran on PBS from 1983-2006. The episode on which The Tin Forest was read ran in 2002. The subject is the aftermath of 9/11, specifically, what happened to the students who attended PS 234 in Manhattan. The theme of the episode, like the theme of the book, is hope.
Because I’d never heard of this book, I now have its story and the story of this particular elementary school intertwined. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. This book was suggested by a friend, and I don’t think I would have picked it up on my own.
What I liked about this book — instantly — was the artwork by Wayne Anderson. I adore the gray-blue tin forest he creates. I can’t get enough of the toucans, the lizards, the flowers, the tree frogs, the leaves. The note on the book jacket says, of Anderson, “His art studio is packed from floor to ceiling with broken clocks, cracked microscopes, and other odd bits and pieces. This jumble of seemingly useless things served as inspiration for the illustrations in The Tin Forest.”
I also love the story’s real forest, illustrated first in a book the old man reads, then in his dream, then in isolated patches, then in full color. The primary color is yellow, and it stands in stark contrast to the metallic gray of the tin forest. For me, the art of this book works better than the text. I think I would prefer it as a wordless picture book.
That being said, I am completely drawn to this old man, who lived in “a wide, windswept place, near nowhere and close to forgotten,” who every day “tried to clear away the garbage,” and who dreamed tropical dreams. I fancy a fella who sees a broken light bulb and suddenly “an idea planted itself in his mind” — that with a little tinkering that light bulb could look like a flower. And I love that such a small idea “grew roots and sprouted. Feeding on the garbage, it grew leaves. It grew branches. It grew bigger and bigger” until, under his hand, “a forest emerged. A forest made of garbage. A forest made of tin.”
“It was not the forest of his dreams, but it was a forest just the same.”
In this story, a dream forest is not enough. A small bird finds the man’s house, and the man shares crumbs from his sandwich. The bird returns with its mate and, more importantly, with seeds: “They dropped them to the dry ground. Green shoots broke through the earth.” Those shoots lead to more birds, to insects and leaves, to small creatures, and finally, to wild animals. From garbage to glory.
Which brings me back to the story of PS 234. Following 9/11, the kids are relocated to a new school for several months, one that hasn’t held classes in years, so they have to sit on the floor and make due. It’s basically a tin school compared to their real one. Once back at their old school, the kids make a video to say thank you to everyone who helped them or sent gifts. They make a sign, basically a giant thank you note, and sing a song.
Burton: “Did you ever think you’d hear yourself say that, that you really missed your school?”
(I wish I could convey to you the amount of attitude packed into that one-word answer.)
Burton tells the audience that one way the kids recovered hope after 9/11 was learning they weren’t alone. And that’s what bugs me about The Tin Forest. Over the course of the story the old man changes the forest from something “filled with all the things that no one wanted,” to something “filled with all the things that everyone wanted.” But we never see “everyone.” He’s still alone.
Unless you count the animals. The man’s connection with nature in the midst of his desolation and how nature grows from dreamt to constructed to lived is, I think, why the book endures. After all, I have often, on a hopeless day, taken a walk down a country lane and instantly felt a bit more hopeful.
The book jacket says this about the inspiration of its writer, Helen Ward: “Inspired to tell a tale of the force of nature, she shows how even the most barren landscape can become a home for all sorts of life.” The winner of several awards in the UK, Ward was an illustrator before she was an author. She’s shy about her awards, preferring this evaluation from a PE teacher long ago: “Helen tries hard.”
The Tin Forest was published in 2001, making it a natural choice for a Reading Rainbow episode about 9/11. The larger theme of the episode was picture books for dark days: “If you’re ever going through a rough time, the students at PS 234 would like to help you out by suggesting some books that will make you feel better,” Burton says, then adds, as he does in every episode, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”
Or mine. Read The Tin Forest for yourself and let me know what you think about the interplay between text and illustrations.
The next Children’s Book Club will meet Friday, January 12: We will read Days of the Blackbird, written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola.
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