Trees: Not All Vertical

The Family Tree – written by Sean Dixon, illustrated by Lily Snowden-Fine
Tundra Books, 2022

Children growing up today, even in nuclear families, probably know someone whose origins can’t necessarily be plotted on a traditional family tree.  Sean Dixon and Lily Snowden-Fine’s new picture book is about one girl, Ada, tracing her past and present through a complex network of relationships. The book is not didactic; its premise is not to offer a lesson in acceptance, but it does suggest that acceptance is a natural outgrowth of Ada’s individual experience. With a quiet and gentle tone, and a consistent metaphor, The Family Tree normalizes one child’s background and, by extension, the lives of all our children.

As soon the reader opens the book, the endpapers show that someone is going to create a work of art. The unpretentious result of that project will be Ada’s school assignment, one that initially caused her some anxiety.  Ada is adopted. The roots and branches of her identity seem unruly, compared to the teacher’s simple picture. Fortunately for Ada, and for the reader, her parents lead her by the hand instead of offering abstract reassurance.  As the book progresses, Ada visits a friend conceived through IVF, LGBTQ families, foster relatives, multicultural homes, and families assisted through surrogacy. No one carries a banner or feels the need to justify or explain how they came to find a loving home. 

Ada’s family tree evolves organically as she traces her relationships, both biological and social.  The tree is a good start, but there are so many other elements that express who she is: a coastline, wildflowers, a butterfly, islands, and oceans.  Each one has a name representing the different people, in addition to her two parents, who have played important roles in her life. Ada’s approach to the project blends seamlessly with her quest; she is both a researcher and an artist finding an individual style. 

Snowden-Fine’s pictures are the perfect vehicle for Ada’s story. They have simplicity of a child’s artwork, but also touches of such diverse influences as Modigliani and the long and somber faces of medieval paintings. There is a bit of Matisse in the scene of Ada and her parents looking up at the starry sky. As children learn to navigate difficult questions, perspective is essential.  The Family Tree embodies that idea in both its sensitive words and images. Any family can enjoy this book.

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