The Tree House (first published by Lemniscaat, Belgium, in 2009) is a wordless picture book created by the father-daughter team of Marije and Ronald Tolman. It depicts a couple of bears (and many other animals) hanging out in a treehouse that starts out in the ocean and ends up on dry land. The blurb on the dust jacket flap describes this as the water receding, but that makes it seem too routine and natural. Really the ocean in the book seems to follow a dreamlike logic — it is there when it needs to be, and then it is gone for the rest of the book. The story begins with the cover itself, which shows a blue whale carrying a happy polar bear across the sea. The first internal page shows the white bear swimming toward the titular tree house. Then a brown bear arrives in a tiny boat. Soon they are frolicking with all sorts of animal guests, including pandas, owls, flamingos, a rhinoceros, and a hippopotamus.
The treehouse itself is a fanciful construction with three levels, a rope ladder, railings, pulleys, whirligigs and various wheels, that extend into the surrounding branches. Across the book’s pages it stays in one place and is, in fact, a single drawing, with relevant details, like lights in the windows, a bucket hanging off one of the ledges, freshly fallen snow, and of course the animal characters, added in as needed for each spread. So the treehouse becomes a stable presence, just as a home ought to be, even as the figures and surroundings dramatically change. This gives extra impact to the spread where the treehouse drawing doubles to show its shaking motion as a rhino rams the tree from below.
The pages go through a huge variety of colors, including a searingly pink spread as the white and brown bears enjoy books and bread over a sea of walking flamingos, a spread with a neon yellow sunset, and a subdued yet beautiful scene of snow falling in a brown-blue sky. The very last spread in the book shows the tree house in the rich enamel blue of night, with just the two bears sitting out on the roof to watch the moon after all their guests have gone away.
The art style is comparatively loose and unpolished. This, combined with the clear, lively colors, gives the pages a fresh energy. For example, the treehouse is “transparent” for most of the book — a line drawing with no fill, adopting the changing colors of the sky behind it. One could almost imagine that the illustrations are being created in real time just for you, or perhaps that they are stills from an old European animation. I would love to learn more about how Marije and Ronald Tolman work together. They are one more example of the collaborative teams, from Kerascoet to Leo and Diane Dillon, who have done some truly wonderful work in illustration over the years.
This book reminds me a bit of Tove Janssen’s beloved Moomin stories in that, despite all the beautiful and fantastic events it shows, the strongest feeling I got from the book was the comfort and peace of home. I’d be completely happy to take the bears’ place — have a nice time with a bunch of furry and feathered friends, and then, once they leave, enjoy a quiet evening with a good book and a piece of toast. But that’s just my interpretation — the cool part is that without narration, every reader can take away something a little different.
I wish there were more of these “silent” picture books. There is a certain wonder and freedom of interpretation in navigating an illustrated world without words to point the reader’s way or tell them what to think. It invites you to spend a little more time with the pictures and sort of contemplate them on their own merit. As an added bonus, it is accessible regardless of language or reading ability.
There is a sequel called The Island, in which Marije Tolman and her father continue the bear adventure. Marije Tolman also has a website with many other examples of her artwork, including her other books. Ronald’s solo work is more in the fine art arena.