A polar bear riding a whale in the ocean. Hmmm. Polar bear…check. Whale…check. Ocean…check. This must be a book about global warming and species extinction. The cover of The Tree House (de Boomhut) certainly suggests this possibility, although I’m not quite sure what a polar bear riding on the head of a whale signifies.

In the opening pages of this stunning (and wordless) picture book, a polar bear and a brown bear climb a treehouse in the middle of the ocean. After some exploration of their new abode, they do what any two bears would do in a treehouse: make toast and crack open some books. However, a tree house in the ocean is a tough thing to conceal, and soon the flamingos arrive, followed by a hippo, a couple of panda bears, owls, crows, and the ultimate party crasher, a rhino. Although welcoming, the two bears spend a lot of time looking off into the distance while the locals make merry in the branches of the treehouse. Yes, even introverts, introverted bears, have parties. As the guests disperse, the story ends. There is no follow-up page with warnings about pollution and the necessity of conservation, or the tragic plight of the polar bear. Sometimes a Tree House is just a treehouse? Surely not.

Snow on de boomhut

Convinced there must be some underlying message, I read the story a second time. Let me back up a bit. I bought the book within minutes of seeing it on the shelf of a local independent bookstore. Such magnificence is impossible to resist. Then I read the book a second time, expecting the hidden subtext to reveal its insidious self upon closer inspection. The receding ocean…is that a nod to our global water crisis?  What about that treehouse? Is Tolman suggesting a kind of point of last refuge for the animals? And then there is the polar bear, the über ursa of the environmental movement. However, all the animals in The Tree House seem perfectly happy and decidedly unthreatened. The receding waters might just be the tree growing taller. A whale is certainly faster than a polar bear in the water. Perhaps a treehouse is just a treehouse, and a beautiful book is just a beautiful book. If there is a message, it’s subtle, and closer to a simple appreciation of the the natural world than a pathologizing diatribe. The Tree House reminds me of that great Discovery Channel video I Love the Whole World, which is truly inspirational, and potentially a far more effective recruitment tool for stewardship of the earth than all the preceding books and movies that just make a person feel crippled with defeat every time a polar bear makes an appearance.

The Tree House is by Dutch artists Marije Tolman and her father, Ronald Tolman. It’s not clear what role each played in the production of this book, but I did read that Ronald Tolman provided the lovely etching of the tree house, which does not change from page to page. It is left to the creatures swimming, perching, and lounging in and around the tree to provide the lively, but sparse narrative of the story. The two bears welcome their guests, and then say goodbye. The background colours switch from muted grey to a vibrant pink, and in a final gorgeous page, a deep twilight blue. The day drifts into night, summer turns to winter. There is nothing left to do but catch snowflakes in a butterfly net and ponder the universe from atop the treehouse. The joy of The Tree House is in the stunning, oversized pages full of curious and colourful beasts who may or may not be emblematic of current ecological concerns, but are more likely just the delightful inhabitants of a whimsical condo with a fantastic ocean view.

In March, The Tree House won the prestigious Fiction prize at the  2010 Bologna Book Fair.

The Tree House by Marije Tolman and Ronald Tolman, published by Lemnisscaat, 2010   ISBN: 978-1590788066