Saakshi Joshi
STRANGE TREES by By Katie Bagli. Illustrations by Ajanta Guhathakurta Children’s Book Trust, 2022, 33 pp., INR 80.00
November 2023, volume 47, No 11

How much do we know about the trees in our surroundings? Strange Trees may make you ask this question and look around. Set during a school summer vacation in the fictional Suryanagar village, this book explores the interdependent lives of trees, birds, animals, and humans.
Strange Trees progresses through encounters between a group of six children (Super Spies) and the eighty-year-old Thimakka Dadi (grandmother). These encounters form the basis of the four stories which together constitute the book. Each story focuses on specific trees. Readers learn about the life cycles of trees, the process of pollination, and the connected nature of our ecosystem. For instance, in the story ‘Stranglers’ readers get to know about different kinds of figs, their pollination through birds/squirrels/bats, and the life cycle of a Banyan tree which takes nourishment from, and grows on another host tree. From ‘The Dink Laddoo Ghost’ readers learn how water rises from the roots upwards to the trunk of a tree, how humans make use of the gum on a tree’s bark, and about pollination through an example involving odour and flies. The story also depicts the emotional inter-special bond between humans and trees through Thimakka Dadi’s recollection of her mourning for a tree from her youth. In ‘Jack of All Fruits’, the children get all their yummy treats: juice, snacks, curry, pudding, and ice cream from one ingredient, jackfruit! The last story in the book ‘The Tree that Snows’, gives another example of pollination through the red silk cotton tree. This story also highlights our coexistence, how we depend on one another; the flowers of a red silk cotton tree being home to different birds, the tea stall owner not cutting down the tree so the birds’ home is not destroyed.
Offering clever titles and straightforward plots, the stories are easy to follow. Katie does a commendable job in teaching science using a story format. The conversations between the different characters effectively take the story forward. But there are a few instances of stereotyping which could have been avoided. For instance, Dadi telling the kids that they should be on their way when it gets dark because their ‘mothers must be waiting’ (p.10). This reinforces the idea of females as the primary caretaker in a family setting. Or, a dialogue which paints boys as pranksters who enjoy teasing girls, and girls as scared of their pranks (p.15).
With the book’s font size, there is no difficulty in reading the text. The language is mostly simple but some scientific concepts, words, or phrases such as host-parasite relationship, enzymes, latticework may require explanation. In some places, the sentences are too long and disrupt the flow of the read.
Ajanta Guhathakurta’s watercolour illustrations are richly coloured, bright, and delightful! But the stories are text-heavy. One is left wanting for a better match between the text and these beautiful works. The distribution of the illustrations across the book is varied. There are full-page illustrations, there are pages with illustrations occupying less than half a page, then there are some pages with only text and no illustrations. Where present, the illustrations are visual representations of what is already mentioned in the text. They depict a fruit, a flower, a tree, as the characters of the stories. They can help the readers visualize how a strangler grows on top of another tree, the flies near the bark of a ghost tree from which gum oozes out, or the ‘cotton’ falling from a red silk cotton tree. But the illustrations are not interactive.
Strange Trees is a treasure-trove of information on different local trees which coexist with us, but about which we may not know much.