Big Tree

Illustrated by Brian Selznick

“Merwin. All life is in danger. Remember, life began as a gift, and it must always be treated as such. No matter how unstoppable the danger seems, no matter how unavoidable, there’s always something you can do.”

Big Tree is a story of Merwin and Louise, two sycamore seeds, who get blown into a grand journey through ecology and time. Curious about their place in the universe, the siblings hope to set down roots and become big trees. Unfortunately, their fate is to live through the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. After a wildfire sweeps through the forest and threatens their Mama tree, the siblings’ pod is released. Merwin and Louise travel a dangerous world and meet a cast of anthropomorphized characters who guide them on their mission. As they are about to reach the mountain that promised them good soil, plenty of light, and water, they face a tectonic danger. From the silence that ensues, Merwin hears a strange voice, the voice of the Old One—Planet Earth—beckoning him to become one with the universe’s greatest story: life. Eventually, Louise strikes roots and grows into a massive tree while Mervin is stuck in a rock crack for decades. When they meet again, one sibling is a mature tree, the other a seed ready to germinate. Their reunion, however, is interrupted by a strange white light in the sky. The Chicxulub meteor hits the Yucatán Peninsula, wiping out three quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth. 66 million years later, a human child picks up a sycamore sapling from a crack in a sidewalk. She plants it into a pot on a windowsill. The seedling—called the Child—tunes in to the voice of the stars that had once sang the same exuberant song of life to Merwin and Louise. 

Told in Selznick’s signature style blend of double page spread charcoal illustrations and a minimalist textual narrative, Big Tree is a graphic novel about deep time, resilience in the face of natural disasters, and nature’s aliveness (see the web of life). For climate literacy education, the book offers a powerful message of hope in the face of planetary-wide crisis that combines climate change and biodiversity loss.  The interconnectedness and dynamism of nature is shown primarily through Merwin and Louise’s interactions with other living beings and ecosystems, including a living Planet Earth (see Gaia, Pachamama). Through mushroom “Ambassadors” Selznick introduces mushrooms, trees, and other plants as an interdependent community which communicates through mycorrhizal fungi (the wood-wide web) and helps one another thrive. Through “King Seaweed,” he introduces rich marine environments, which long predated humans. And he uses “the Scientists”—tiny sea creatures called Foraminifera, who are neither plants nor animals and whose shells capture the carbon dioxide around them as they form—to introduce the carbon cycle as well as climate change science (see Earth System science). 

One key climate literacy message of Big Tree is that each member of Earth’s community understands its role in the larger process: A leaf whispers: “I am supposed to disintegrate. I will help give birth to new trees, and from those trees will grow new leaves. On and on” (275). As the Old One, Earth, tells Merwin: “there is no end to the story [of life]” (432). Yet everyone is called to do their part. “All life is in danger,” the Old One tells Merwin shortly before the meteor hits. “Life began as a gift, and it must always be treated as such. No matter how unstoppable the danger seems, no matter how unavoidable, there’s always something you can do” (434-35). The most profound wisdom, the text repeatedly stresses, comes from listening to the Old One: a listening that connects one, “with invisible roots, to the entire world” (435). This is why, just before the meteor strikes, all plants on Earth release “their countless seeds into the air. Each seed was an act of hope, a belief in the future, and … ready to bravely battle the coming darkness” (471). Although climate change is not addressed directly, recurring natural disasters and existential threats are analogous to contemporary struggles with climate change and the courage we must muster. The siblings’ determination in the face of this great uncertainty encourages readers to inquire about the natural world, their place in the fragile web of life, and how they too can become stewards of nature. As Louise announces, “It’s time to save the world” (470). This, too, is a message for our time. 

The novel ends with an Author’s Note which explains the story’s background, key terms, and assures the reader that “Everything in the story you just read is based on scientific fact” (515). This includes the protagonist’s names too: Merwin is named after the poet William Stanley Merwin (1927-2019), the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2010 who twice won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Louise is named for a scientist, Dr. Louise Colville, a seed specialist at Kew Gardens in the United Kingdom (see more).

©2024 ClimateLit (Nicholas Broske with later edits by Marek Oziewicz)

Big Tree Activity Guide:

Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2023

Pages: 525

ISBN: 978-1-338-180663-3

Audience: Ages 14+, Ages 8-13

Format: Comics and Graphic Novels

Topics: Biodiversity Loss, Carbon Cycle, Climate Change, Climate Science, Deep Time, Earth Care, Earth System, Earth's Aliveness, Ecosystems, Existential Threats, Foraminifera, Forests, Fungi, Gaia, Hope, Interconnectedness, Marine Ecosystems, Mother Earth, Mushrooms, Mycorrhizal Fungi, Natural Disasters, Pachamama, Plants, Resilience, Trees, Web of Life, Wood-Wide Web