The inspiration behind What Did the Tree See?
Special guest post by Charlotte Guillain
I’ve wanted to write a book about an oak tree for a long time. I live very close to the Blenheim Palace estate in Oxfordshire, where some of the oldest oaks in Europe can be found. Their location is kept secret, so I am forever sizing up ancient trees as I pass, wondering if they could be the ones! I always start my working day with a walk and I started to think about how long these trees have been in this place and how much has changed in the world around them as they grew. I found it fascinating to consider how many people have walked past these trees over the centuries, climbed on their branches or sat in their shade.
For a long time, I played around with ways to write this non-fiction title but I wasn’t happy with any. I wrote various drafts with different angles and approaches but I discarded all of them. Then one day I realised that the best voice to narrate this story would be that of the oak tree itself. It would be amazing to hear what the tree has ‘seen’ over hundreds of years. How would it feel about all the changes it has witnessed? When my imaginary oak started to speak, it talked to me in verse. Who was I to argue with that? Maybe that’s how all oak trees talk!
So, about a year after I first tried to write this book, I let the tree tell its own story, which flowed onto the page very quickly. I realised that some stories, just like trees, need a long time to germinate and grow. The next stage was wonderful, as Sam Usher began work on his beautiful, detailed illustrations, bringing the book to life. Not only do we track the incredible changes that happen in the landscape around the oak, but we can see the various animals and birds that have made the tree their home and the children who have played there across the centuries.
I hope that everyone who reads the tree’s story and immerses themselves in Sam’s intricate illustrations stops and takes notice next time they pass a tree. I hope they think about all the thousands of species of animals, birds, invertebrates, lichen and fungi that make the tree their home. I want them to wonder at how the tree has grown to this immense size using just sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. How much oxygen has that tree produced for us to breathe? And what changes might that tree have seen throughout its life?
What Did the Tree See? by Charlotte Guillain, illustrated by Sam Usher (£12.99, Welbeck Children’s) available now.
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