The Egg Tree by Katherine Milhous is an old book, but a distinguished one. First published in 1950, it is the only Easter book ever to win the Caldecott Medal.
And so The Egg Tree has been on my wishlist for some time now, and I was delighted when I stumbled across it at a used bookstore recently. I expected to be even more delighted when I read the book. And yet …
And yet, at least for me, the book hasn’t aged well.
It’s not just that the illustrations are dated. They are, of course. In 1950, children’s books were not printed with full-color illustrations. Some, like Robert McCloskey’s classic Blueberries for Sal used no color at all. Others were printed with just two colors of ink – black and one other color was most common. Sometimes a book might have additional colors on some of the pages, creating brighter, more colorful spreads. And that approach worked beautifully in so very many books.
I expected it to work in this book. It is, after all, a Caldecott book, and the story takes place among the Pennsylvania Dutch people. The old-fashioned feel of the art should have supported the story perfectly. And yet …
And yet the illustrations muddy the story instead of clarifying it. They make it harder to follow. Katy, the protagonist, is at her grandmother’s farm with her brother Carl and their cousins. It is the first time Katie and Carl have spent Easter with their grandmother. When you first see them, it’s on one of the multicolor spreads. They are leaning out the window of their grandmother’s red house, and they both have yellow hair.
When you turn the page, you see six children hunting Easter eggs. And nary a one has yellow hair. These must be the cousins, then.
Turn the page again, and there are six children again. Are they the same six as on the previous page? Their clothes are different, so there must be more cousins there at Grandmother’s house.
I had to go back through the book to understand that the pictures with six children show Katy and Carl and their four cousins. It’s just that, as you turn the pages, their hair and clothing changes. Suzy’s brown dress turns green. Appolonia sometimes wears pale orange with a white cap over dark brown hair, and sometimes her outfit is white, with a blue bonnet over yellow hair. I have no idea which child in the pictures is Luke and which is Johnny – they are as indistinguishable as Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern in both story and art – but they have magical morphing clothing as well.
Perhaps a compelling story could have redeemed the art. The story is gentle and quiet. Katy has some anxious moments when she fears that she will be the only child not to find any eggs. But, aside from that, there is no tension, no drama, because there isn’t much in the way of a story.
Or perhaps it would be more fair to say that there are two stories, set a year apart. The second, brief story, is something of an epilogue to the first. But neither story is compelling.
And, sadly, there’s not enough richness and depth to the Pennsylvania Dutch setting to make up for the rest of the weaknesses. I found The Egg Tree as hollow and unsatisfying as a cheap chocolate bunny.
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