February 2023

Maple & Rosemary

Written by Alison James and illus. by Jennifer K. Mann

Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is a beloved childhood classic, but its allegory of boundless parental sacrifice has not aged especially well and has prompted a number of parodies and revisions, such as Topher Payne’s The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries. While this month’s Big Picture, Maple & Rosemary, doesn’t explicitly reference The Giving Tree, it, too, feels like an update to the classic—rich, warm, and bittersweet in contrast to Payne’s pointed satire, with a wisdom that will speak to both young readers and their caretakers.

Maple is a sugar maple, “lovely and sweet” but lonely, as she’s the only deciduous tree in a stand of cedar and pine, and the evergreens aren’t interested in getting to know a tree that sheds its leaves. When little Rosemary climbs Maple’s branches to cry because the other children at school are mean to her, both girl and tree find the friendship they’ve been yearning for. Rosemary shares her troubles and school lessons in the shelter of Maple’s leaves, and Maple shows Rosemary the lifecycle of butterflies and rains seeds down around her. Rosemary inevitably grows up and stops visiting, leaving a desolate Maple wishing for “the winter to cover her with snow and never ever melt.”

James’ gentle, straightforward prose is striking in its simplicity, capturing the strangeness and joy of new friendship as well as the ache of loneliness. During Rosemary’s long absence, “year after year, winter swept into summer. Leaves bloomed, burned, then fell.” The quiet tone invites contemplation of the power of friendship, making space for complexity as Maple and Rosemary each grow in each other’s absence and find an even more profound connection in their later years. It’s a thoughtful portrayal that honors the way relationships change over time; where Rosemary goes to Maple for comfort as a child, she in turns offers the tree care as an adult, and neither is diminished in service to the other.

Mann’s sweeping, digitally collaged landscapes glow in a warm welcome to young viewers, with a combination of painterly and penciled textures bringing depth. There is a sense of motion in Maple’s leaves and the grass that surrounds her, as if rustling on a gentle breeze, while Rosemary’s simple, childlike figure is more kinetic, leaping, climbing, and playing in montage-like scenes that capture the energy of their daily time together. Mann uses color and image repetition skillfully, with the dominant green-gold palettes of summer contrasted by both the fiery autumn hues and the white and brown stillness of winter. Each image centers Maple, sometimes alone, sometimes surrounded by children, as the seasons change around her. Rosemary stands out in clothes that match the crimson, red-orange, and dusty yellow of Maple’s autumn leaves, emphasizing her vibrancy but also subtly suggesting the impermanence of all living things.

Adult readers will anticipate Rosemary’s death from the winter setting of the friends’ final scene, but the book only implies it, focusing instead in its final pages on Maple as she contemplates their friendship: “She spread her leaves to the sky and remembered . . . Now Maple knew what it meant to have a true friend. No matter where you are, you are always together.” It’s a moment that feels piercing, beautiful, and true as it honors the depth and longevity of friendship, even with the inevitability of loss.

—Sarah Sahn, Reviewer

Cover illustration from Maple & Rosemary. Text copyright © 2023 by Alison James. Illustrations copyright © 2023 by Jennifer K. Mann. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Holiday House.