There has been a whole slew (to be precise) of picture books in the last several years about imaginary friends. More than usual, that is. It’s always been a topic ripe for exploration in books for children. Most notably, there was Dan Santat’s recent Caldecott winner, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend.
But how about a picture book about an imaginary tree house? That’s what Brianne Farley brings readers in her new picture book, Secret Tree Fort.
I suppose they’re not for everyone, but I personally think tree houses are THE BEST. (I once stayed in a friend’s three-story tree house, complete with bunk beds, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Needless to say, her grandchildren lucked out to end up with her as Grandma.) Farley creates a splendid tree house in this book, but the heart of the story is the camaraderie between two sisters. It’s truly sweet, even tender, but never saccharine.
In the book’s first spread, a mother sends her two daughters outside to play. The oldest, a big reader, clutches her book to her chest, complete with a scowl on her face. The youngest is mid-air, leaping with joy, at the chance to play outdoors with her sibling. Perhaps the oldest is a tween, hormonally temperamental; if she’s not scowling while trying her best to read, she’s glaring at her pesky, little sister. Perhaps that’s not the case and she’s really not in the mood to play and just really doesn’t want to be interrupted. Either way, she’ll have none of this playing nonsense.
The youngest, however, does her best to snag her sister’s attention, resorting to flat-out fibbing: “I have a secret tree fort, and you’re not invited!” she says. Above her head, in a thought balloon of sorts, we see just one flat piece of wood, the very beginning of what will become the massive tree house of her mind’s eye. As the girl continues to wax rhapsodically about her imaginary fort, we see it grow on the tree her sister leans on while she reads. Suddenly, there’s a rope ladder hanging down; there’s a water-balloon launcher for attacking pirates; there’s a second floor, a secret tunnel, and a trapdoor in the roof; there’s a basket for “snacks and other emergencies”; there are flags that communicate; and more. With each addition described by the creative young girl, the structure expands. All the while, the older one is still reading. She’s stubborn, that one.
Despite occasionally reminding her sister that she wishes she could tell her more about it, since it’s a secret, the little sister goes on and on. All this time, the fantastical tree house grows via Farley’s detailed illustrations, rendered via charcoal, pencil, and ink (and colored digitally). The spreads get busier as the girl’s imagination runs wild. Farley has a lot of fun here with the imaginary monsters trying to attack the imaginary tree house, not to mention the pirate shaking his fist in the girls’ general direction. There are several laugh-aloud moments, such as when the flag for “OUT FOR SNACKS, COME BACK LATER” is hung and the monsters and pirate walk away despondently, as if all it takes to ward off evil is a well-designed away notice.
In the book’s climax, the tow-headed younger sister announces the big reveal: “The whole fort is made of CANDY!” Right after that, returning to a spread with just the two girls in plenty of white space, we see the older one tell her sister, “That doesn’t exist.” Ouch. They argue, the older one insisting it’s all a figment of her sister’s imagination, until one tear falls from her younger sister’s eye. Farley paces this moment just right. Maybe, the older one says with a change of heart, “we just need to build it!” Finally, her book is down, and they are engaging in play. (In fact, they’re drawing up plans for a tree fort, but look closely: There’s a pirate in the bushes!)
Farley has a distinctive style, which includes squat characters with slightly large heads and color that grows as the story does. The younger sister stands out in her red, polka-dotted shirt, and her sister, in green stripes. The imaginary world around the girls lights up as the story goes on, and Farley knows how to keep spreads from getting overwhelmingly busy.
Cool tree houses. Pirates. Monsters. Walkie-talkies. Water-balloon launchers. All in a story that rings true to the special bond sisters can have. Don’t miss this one. It’s too fun to keep a secret.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.