There are beloved folk tales that are passed down through generations. Something in the story makes them worth retelling over and over again. The Shade Tree, written and illustrated by Suzy Lee, and translated by Canadian Helen Mixter, is such a story.
Lee has adapted an old Korean story for this picture book: set in a rural area, a wealthy rural landowner confronts a traveller – and a group of villagers – for daring to rest in the shade of a tree that is situated on his property. It becomes a battle of wills between the traveller and landowner for the right to enjoy the splendour provided by the natural world.
The community learns to bond over their shared needs and is polarized by the landowner’s greed and protectiveness of the tree that grants shade. The traveller is a kind of trickster figure who plays on the landowner’s greed to claim use of the tree’s shade, and eventually, much more.
Children can learn much from this carefully constructed parable: language counts for something and the disempowered can sometimes upset the established order simply by thinking creatively.
The book’s illustrations are minimalist, and serve to complement the story rather than overstimulate readers. Lee’s work as an illustrator has garnered her numerous accolades including winning the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2022.
The Shade Tree is a simple story that has endured because it reminds us of the need to band together to survive. The tree in the story symbolizes the community’s spirit and vitality, something that “grew bigger and bigger” over time.
That’s a worthy message in our era where technology, anxiety, greed, and habit have isolated people from each other. The Shade Tree shows us that we can greatly enrich our lives by reaching out – and sharing.