Review: The Tree of Life: How a Holocaust Sapling Inspired the World

The Tree of Life: How a Holocaust Sapling Inspired the Worl

by Elisa Boxer, illustrated by Alianna Rozentsveig

Rocky Pond Books (imprint of Penguin Random House), 2024

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Melissa Lasher

Buy at

The Tree of Life tells the story of the Holocaust by focusing on how children in one ghetto nurtured a single smuggled-in sapling. Its message is as essential today as it was when the tree took root almost eighty years ago: hope triumphs over fear.

In the ghetto, a teacher risks her life by simply teaching—and by asking a prisoner to smuggle in a sapling for Tu BiShvat. The prisoner, also risking his life, hides the sapling in his boot. The children are scared and thirsty—and yet each shares a few drops of their daily water allotment with the tree, which grows and thrives, bringing hope to the entire ghetto.

A third-person narrator creates distance between young readers and the fearful children in the story. The streamlined, soothing prose buffers the dark content. There’s a similar balance to the illustrations. Rozentsveig’s darkly depicted settings are foreboding, and a prison guard stands in a spine-tingling red doorway. But the children have bright clothes and a glow that tempers their fraught expressions.

Is a children’s book about the Holocaust too terrifying? Each family must decide, of course. BUT, when the message is hope triumphing over fear, and when the hope exists on every page (sometimes thanks to a single bright leaf), and when the text has a calming cadence…yes, a story set amidst the Holocaust becomes palatable for kids. The death camps are loosely implied in the text and images across three pages, quickly enough to be honest but not dwell, before moving along to after the war and some happy endings.

The three spotlighted children survive World War II. The tree thrives in the former ghetto. That brave teacher sends seeds from the Tree of Life around the world. Now, 600 trees descend from the original: they’re living examples of hope conquering fear and hatred. The tree’s survival reflects the ability of Jews to live on despite Hitler’s best efforts to obliterate world’s Jewish population.

The author’s note includes more detail about the historical elements: brutal statistics about the plight of Jewish children in the Holocaust, plus more on the teacher, the tree’s descendants, and the Terezin prison camp (also called Theresienstadt, in the former Czechoslovakia). The author briefly mentions her connection to the story: relatives on both sides of her Jewish family were killed during WWII.

By tightening the lens on a devastating period of history and keeping the focus on the tree, Boxer and Rozentsveig have created an honest but relatively gentle entry point to the Holocaust. This story about a sapling will appeal to Jewish families looking to talk to their kids about the Holocaust, school and synagogue libraries, and anyone looking for a tale of hope conquering fear and hate. All of this makes The Tree of Life a strong contender for the Sydney Taylor Book Award.

Are you interested in reviewing books for The Sydney Taylor Shmooze? Click here!

Reviewer Melissa Lasher writes contemporary middle grade and picture books about flawed, funny main characters who get in their own way. As a journalist, she contributed to publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Runner’s World, and National Geographic Adventure, where she was an editor. Macon, GA-born, north Jersey-bred, and a New Yorker at heart, she lived in San Francisco for ten years before settling in Tennessee with her husband, three kids, and book-eating dog (he thinks fiction is delicious). She’s a reluctant Southerner but will go all Jersey on you if you knock her adopted hometown.


Post a Comment