When a man returns to his childhood home and visits the derelict tree house in which his father once chose to live, he recalls the past unravelling of his family, the unspoken strangeness of their lives, and the impact on his own adult life.
Find out more about Emma Shoard’s favourite illustrations from Mal Peet’s ‘The Family Tree.’
Though this image of the broken treehouse is one of the first you see in the book, it was one of the last illustrations that I worked on. Because of the way the characters and the treehouse itself ages and changes throughout the story, I decided to make the illustrations chronologically. It made sense for me to construct it, furnish it and then to think about how it might fall apart over time. I thought about how the balcony would collapse, the door swing on its hinges and stick and the wooden structure would turn grey and blend with the beech tree. It was quite a sad thing to do actually, I could have destroyed it more but didn’t have the heart to. The way Ben is looking up into the branches is meant to reflect the way the father is looking up, on the next page.
This illustration shows Ben and his dad at their happiest, before anything feels wrong. The Nest (the treehouse) is a warm and magical place for them both and I wanted to show that through the candlelight, both of their smiling faces and the coats ad candles orderly in the background. There are so few points in the book where Ben, his father and mother are all in one place together. But for this scene, I wanted to suggest that there had been a recent time when they were still a unit by putting three pegs on the wall, one with mum’s cardigan hanging there. After this point, she doesn’t come to the Nest again.
On the page, after this cosy scene of father and son reading together, you see mum alone. I think the way that it sits along the one line of text “That’s how I remember it anyway” is very powerful. Mal Peet had a beautiful way of saying a lot in very few words and with that last line in the chapter, we are encouraged to think about the point of view of the absent character.