The Woodcutter and the Most Beautiful Tree earned a Kirkus Star for its witty dialogue and colorful illustrations that evoke the majesty of the four seasons with strokes of watercolor, ink pen, colored pencil and acrylic paint. First-time author Robb N. Johnston was teaching English in Tsukuba, Japan, when he got the idea to craft a children’s book about a beautiful, cunning tree who foils a woodcutter’s efforts to chop it down. But the interview took a surprising turn when we asked the part-time writer and illustrator about his current job in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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How did your teaching position in Japan inspire you to write a book?

I had adult and kids classes when I was teaching. For our children’s classes we had different books to read to them and to have them read. And I noticed that the books that we were using were like Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein—all these books that I had grown up with. That blew my mind that I was using these same books on the other side of the world. There was kind of a feeling to try and become a part of that world. 

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Where did you learn to draw?

It’s always been a hobby—a passion of mine. I took art classes all through middle and high school and I decided to get a degree in international relations when I went to Michigan State. I hoped to take art classes when I got into college, but at the time it was very difficult to get into the art program classes, like the intro classes, unless you were an art major. It’s always been something that I’ve just done on the side. When I went to Japan, the same kind of thing—I was just doodling and drawing on my own time. I started to draw these patterns and circles and designs and to think about how I could integrate those into a story.

What influenced this aesthetic?

I don’t know. A lot of people have suggested similarities with other things. People think they see a Japanese design to it, or a Russian motif; some people see a Pacific Northwest Native American kind of thing to it. For me, I couldn’t really pinpoint where the inspiration for that came from.

I love the woodcutter.

He was a lot of fun. He took form on a few separate train rides to and from Tokyo from my hometown. Initially he had suspenders. He’s always been very barrel-chested. I wanted to have really exaggerated features, but he’s undergone an evolution.

Is he based on anyone you know?


What was your inspiration for the plot?

I wanted to have the tree be the central focus. That was kind of the idea that I hit on for these circular patterns was to have them be sort of an abstract imagining of a leaf or a flower and even the four seasons seemed like a good way to be able to showcase the tree throughout the year and all these different changes that it undergoes. That was really nice because I could do a lot with color and then I wanted to include the woodcutter. From the beginning I guess it was going to be this dialogue between the woodcutter and the tree that goes throughout the four seasons. Initially, I didn’t want it to end on a Christmas note—I didn’t want it to be put in that box as being a Christmas story because I really like how each season gets its own treatment—but in the end that just seemed like a really neat way to tie it all up and put a little bit of a message in there, so I just went with it. 

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I work for the Natural Area Preservation Department. Our focus is ecological restoration of the green spaces here. My time is split between doing crew work outdoors and leading volunteer workdays, which is a little bit of volunteer management, volunteer coordination and education, which is a lot of fun.

So you know something about trees?

My co-workers got a chuckle out of the fact that a lot of what we do is invasive species removal. We have lots of non-native trees growing in our natural areas and so when I’m not writing about the most beautiful tree, I’m cutting down trees that we don’t like.

So you’re the woodcutter? What if a tree asks you not to cut it down?

I’ll know how to handle it. [Laughs]