Aani and the Tree Huggers

illustrated by Venantius J. Pinto (Lee and Low Books, 1995).
Smithsonian Notable Book of the Year; CCBC “Choices”

I’d written stories and essays and unpublished novels, but Aani and the Tree Huggers was my first published book. My daughter was small then, and every week we brought home armfuls of picture books from libraries. It seemed that so much had already been said, but when I found a magazine article about women from India who had saved trees from loggers in the 1970’s, I knew I’d found a story that should be more widely known. I researched the Chipko Andolan, or Hug the Tree Movement, and tried to find my way into Aani’s heart by imagining how scared and hurt and angry she must have been to see the trees she loved and depended on being threatened -- to be made into tennis rackets! I admired the courage of the village girls and women and wanted to show readers heroes who never won personal fame, but whose actions changed the world.


The tree-hugging movement that began in India is a great example of the power of non-violent resistance that was promoted by Gandhi, used dramatically by Martin Luther King, Jr., and continued with Julia Butterfly Hill’s two-year-long stay in a redwood tree to slow down tree-cutting in California’s forests. My editor and I discussed whether we should use the term “tree hugger” in the title, since it’s sometimes used as an insult. We decided we didn’t care about those sneerers. We like people who hug trees.
And we hope students can find trees to hug without ax-wielding loggers at their backs! At my nearby Audubon Center, visitors sometimes play a game in which they’re blindfolded, then asked to find a tree to hug. After the blindfolds are removed, they use their sense of touch to recognize the shape and texture of “their” tree.

Teachers may ask their classes to turn Aani’s story into a play. Of course the trees are important “characters,” too. Arms and heads can imitate branches moved by the wind.

When I visit classrooms, I ask kids to name all the things that trees give us. Most have stories they want to tell about their favorite trees. I encourage them to draw and write about this special tree. You may want to point out the way Venantius J. Pinto painted with such loving detail. To get some particularly small images, he used paint brushes with just three bristles. He was inspired by the Indian tradition of miniatures and drew from some ancient techniques, such as using a conch shell to burnish colors.

I also ask children to talk about how words evoke the five senses, and I show them my “inspiration box” for Aani and the Tree Huggers. I ask them to name the sense each object suggests as I take out incense, an orange, the magazine article that first inspired me (CoEvolution Quarterly fall 1981), bells, a sari, and a turban. Some kids have made their own inspiration boxes and begun stories of their own.

As a writer, I need to do research, and then feel my way into the “shoes” (or sandals) of a character. What we wear affects the way we move and even think. If you’re lucky, someone in your class might be able to bring in a sari, or one can be made from a strip of cloth. I made a sari that “fits” most kids using silk that’s thirty inches wide and ten feet long. To hold a sari in place, women in India traditionally tuck them into the front of underskirts, but jeans work just as well. Kids can tuck them into their front of their pants, twist the cloth around their waist one and a half times, then simply pull up the cloth so it crosses and falls over one shoulder. Most feel quite elegant!

Boys may prefer to try on a turban, which is just another long piece of cloth -- I use white cotton eighteen inches wide and six feet long. All they need to do is center the cloth on the back of their heads, pull it toward the front, criss-cross it over the forehead, wind it around again, and tuck in the excess. White turbans are worn to keep off the blazing sun, though centuries ago they were also worn in battles to protect heads from swords.

You can find more facts about India and suggetions of things to do with Aani and the Tree Hugger in the teacher’s guide at my publisher’s web-site at www.leeandlow.com

Good web-sites for tree-hugging kids include:

Environmental Science for Kids at about.com http://kidscience.miningco.com/kids/kidscience/msub15.htm
This excellent site has information on almost everything from earth science to the sea and space. It includes great links to women’s history in science and other fields.

Green Kids Books www.GreenKidsBooks.org
Here you can find information about books about nature and things you can do to help the earth.

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