The Apple Tree by John Rebholz. Illustrations by Zoe Saunders. Published by Lightning Source. 2018.
A young soldier sits in a trench, his head bowed in concentration. As a new father sent to fight in the First World War, he knows that he may not live to see his baby son grow up. With remarkable foresight in the shadow of heavy shelling, he writes a letter movingly addressed ‘from the father you’ll never know.’ He sews it into his uniform along with some seeds so that, upon his untimely death, his little boy is gifted the opportunity of planting an apple tree in his memory.
The Apple Tree is a rhyming children’s picture book with a powerful message. It can be read by older children independently or out loud to younger ones. Just a few pages long and yet spanning the past hundred years, it reveals a story of love across nations and generations up to and including the present day.
The soldier’s legacy is an eternal reminder of fatherly love. His son saves the precious seeds for when he, too, has a boy and they plant the tree together on the family farm in the Swiss Alps, its growth and development mirroring the child’s own. Time passes and fashions change. During the Cold War, the soldier’s grandson leaves the farm and becomes a soldier himself, discovering the wider world and falling in love with an English girl. Proving that love has no barriers, they eventually get married and start a family in the UK. Through changing seasons and shifting eras, the apple tree continues to blossom, inextricably entwined with the family’s story. Its leaves change from green to red and back again as generations of children play in its shade.
The beautiful illustrations by Zoe Saunders (Twitter: @WhimsicolourArt) vividly bring the story to life. From rustic family pictures on the mountain farm where the tree grows, to the harsh reality of life in the trenches, her evocative images effortlessly draw the reader into the action and take them on a journey through time. World War One is recreated in a poignant scene showing a rare moment of quiet reflection amidst a background of chaos. The alpine settings are particularly lovely, showing a carefree childhood in the shadow of grief and poverty. Surrounded by snowy mountains and barnyard animals, the children share one roller skate but aspire to travel and follow in their ancestors’ footsteps. The images are strangely comforting, instilling a sense of security in the young reader whilst addressing difficult topics.
The Apple Tree is a moving story of love and loss. Difficult topics of grief and bereavement are incorporated, helping children to explore the concept of losing a loved one whilst offering the reassuring message that they are always with us. As a children’s book, it nicely facilitates intergenerational dialogue, offering a way of starting a conversation about the past that the young and old can enjoy together, reminiscing and sharing memories from generation to generation. An interesting follow up activity to reading the book could be piecing together the reader’s own family tree. Based on a true story, it has the potential to be developed into an epic family saga and international love story for grownups or young adults.
About the Author:
The Apple Tree is the debut children’s book of John Rebholz. John’s great grandfather was the World War One soldier featured in the story and his family tree dates back to the 1800s. A passionate advocate for children’s mental health, his own experience of grief when his father passed away and the resulting questions from his children who missed their beloved ‘Grossi’ (as their Swiss grandfather was known) prompted a desire to preserve both his own childhood memories and those of the family’s previous generations.
SCBWI member John says: “I would like to raise awareness about children and young people’s mental health and to encourage the use of an art-form to understand and deal with the grief and pain following a bereavement.’ Follow him on Twitter: @theappletree10