When autumn arrives in the Northern hemisphere with all its brilliant colours, we turn towards parks and forests to enjoy the fall foliage. Let’s take advantage of this beautiful season and learn more about trees in English, and more specifically, trees in culture and literature.
Trees play important roles in our lives and environment, and they are powerful symbols throughout all cultures. They have supported and sustained us since the beginning of human life: providing all-important shelter and fire to heat and cook with. They clean our air, produce oxygen and provide shade or protection on sunny and rainy days. They serve as homes for many animals, just think about bird nests and burrows. Every culture has favourite trees in its mythology and folklore. These trees symbolize the power of nature and life. One of the most famous trees is probably the Tree of Life in the Old Testament, which has become a universal symbol of life, transcending culture and religion.
You can introduce the topic of trees in culture with one of these research tasks.
- Ask your students to select a field such as Greek, African, Norse, Native American or Indian mythology and folklore (or their own culture) and do some research on trees and their symbolism.
- Ask your students if there are trees which are important in their neighbourhood or family.
In our three-part series on trees, first we visit the trees in our own readers. Then we will explore trees in films and world literature. Finally, we will offer a lesson on the language of trees and a tree quiz. Let’s get to know some trees in our Helbling Readers.
The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde
Retold by Maria Cleary, illustrated by Cecilia Tamburini
The Selfish Giant builds a high wall around his garden to keep the children away from it. When spring comes, the trees in his garden don’t bloom, winter doesn’t go away. When the children finally enter the garden and the Selfish Giant makes friends with them, the trees start to bloom again. At the end of the story, the tree also symbolizes the death of the Selfish Giant in a symbolic way. One tree in particular symbolises the boy the Giant loves.
If you are reading this story with children, you can focus on how the trees change with the attitude of the Selfish Giant. With adult readers you can also try an allegorical reading: the garden can be read as the Garden of Eden.
Little Red Riding Hood retold by Richard Northcott
Illustrated by Catty Flores
In this retelling of one of the most famous fairy tales, we meet Little Red Riding Hood, who is on her way to visit her grandmother in the forest. The forest is a dangerous place where Little Red meets a woodcutter and a big, bad wolf. Although we are all familiar with this story, its different versions can uncover different meanings that are engaging and memorable for younger and older audiences alike.
With younger readers, you can talk about why forests can be perceived as dangerous places and you can stay safe in them? What can you learn about in forests?
With older readers, point out how forests are often used in fairy takes as places of initiation. They areplaces of magic, knowledge and growing up: the person who enters them has to face their fears and find their way among trees on unknown paths. What other stories do they know that are set in forests?
Read more about the story of Little Red Riding Hood:
The Thirsty Tree by Adrián N. Bravi
Illustrated by Valentina Russello
In this story a little bird, Cloudbreak visits a very thirsty tree that asks for the bird’s help to get some water. The bird acts immediately and asks the wind to blow some clouds over the tree so that she can break the cloud and make some rain for the tree. In the end, the tree turns green and it is no longer thirsty.
Talk about all the forces of nature that are needed for life to continue: sunshine, wind, clouds, rain, soil and animals are all needed for nature. Focus also on the colours in the book and how the palette changes from earthy browns to lush greens.
Food for the Winter by Rick Sampedro
Illustrated by Estella Guerrera
In this lovely story of community and friendship a group of chipmunks face a cold, hard winter. They are all starving except Chippy, who has gathered lots of nuts and seeds for his family. When a terrible accident happens, the chipmunks come together to help Chippy and teach him an important lesson in sharing.
Apart from talking about selfishness and greed, you can also talk about the natural cycle of seasons. Students can imagine what life would be if they like if they had to work hard to save food for winter. Would it be possible?
Robin Hood by Howard Pyle
Adapted by Scott Lauder and Walter McGregeor, illustrated by Catty Flores
The Major Oak in the Sherwood Forest is one of the most famous trees in English folklore. In the story of Robin Hood, it is the tree where Robin Hood and his merry men hid, slept and spent a lot of their time. Today the tree is supported by scaffolding and needs to be protected. Unfortunately, it is still vandalized sometimes.
You can talk about the most typical trees in England, and the most common tree, the oak. If you would like to learn more about trees, you can check out the A-Z Guide to British Trees on the website of the Woodland Trust.
When you are reading the story, collect the events that happen near Major Oak.
- More reading and lesson tips: Explore the forest of Robin Hood
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Adapted by Geraldine Sweeney, illustrated by Andrea Alemanno
In this classic story of friendship and adventure, we meet four friends: Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger. They live in the forest near a river. On the other side of the river is the Wild Wood, where Badger lives. The Wild Wood is also home to dangerous animals like stoats and weasels. In this story, Mole, friendly Rat and wide Badger try to keep their not-so-clever friend, Toad, out of trouble.
Woods are often seen as dangerous places. In what ways can a forest be scary or dangerous? You can talk about the woods in other stories, for example Little Red Riding Hood, where the forest is also an unknown and dangerous place.
Where do animals live in the woods? Introduce terms such as nests, hives, burrows, dens and lairs. What type of animals live in each of them?
- More reading and lesson tips: The Wind in the Willows
Holly the Eco Warrior by Martyn Hobbs
Illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini
In this graphic story in the Westbourne Kids series, we meet Holly, whose favourite place is the tree house in the old tree in their family garden. One day her father decides to cut down the tree to build an office, and Holly decides to start a protest by moving out of their home and into the tree house.
There are several stories in the news about people trying to protect trees, parks and forests. Have your students heard about similar events? Why is it important to protect the trees in our environment?
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Adapted by David A. Hill, illustrated by Viola Niccolai
The young Victor Frankenstein started studying electricity because he saw a tree destroyed by a flash of lightning during a thunderstorm. A guest staying with his family told him about electricity and galvanism, and the rest, as they say, is history, or rather, classic literature.
Check if your students know what electricity and galvanism are. Galvanism is the generation of an electrical current by chemical action. Then, ask your students if they have ever heard about a similar incident. How can they protect themselves against a flash of lightning? In connection with electricity and lightning, you can ask students to check what a Faraday cage is and how it can protect them.
- More reading and lesson tips: Man or Monster: Frankenstein in the Classroom
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Adapted by David A. Hill, illustrated by Stefano Fabbri
In the famous story of Buck, the dog that travels from California to the Yukon Territory in Alaska, we experience what life in nature is like. As we follow Buck up North, we notice how the scenery changes: from the pine forests we arrive at the timber line, north of which no trees grow. We also see how life in the forest reawakens Buck’s real nature plus we learn about the wildlife he sees there: game birds, rabbits, squirrels, timber wolves and moose.
Ask students if they know why people in the 19th century travelled to Yukon Territory. They will learn about the gold rush from the story. Then, find pictures of Alaska and find the places Buck visited in a map.
- More reading and lesson tips: Jack London Special for Your IWB
Operation Osprey by David A. Hill
Illustrated by Giovanni Da Re
In this original story, we get to know two friends, Don and Mike. They both live in a sleepy town and love birdwatching. One day they notice a pair of osprey at a nearby lake and decide to protect the birds so that they can make a nest and hopefully breed. Through their adventures we learn about the importance of protecting forests and woods where birds can nest. In this story the nesting tree is a pine.
Talk about nests with your students. What other types of birds nest in trees? Are there any bird nests near your students’ homes? When do birds start building their nests? What materials do they use?