The Great Kapok Tree
is an American children's picture book
conservation. It was written and illustrated by Lynne Cherry
, and was originally published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
in 1990. The book is dedicated to Chico Mendes
, a Brazilian environmental activist who was murdered in 1988.
The Great Kapok Tree
is set in the Amazon rainforest
. A young man begins to chop down a kapok tree
, following the orders of a "larger man". After he has hit the tree a few times with his axe, he sits down to rest and falls asleep. While he sleeps, several rainforest animals and a Ya̧nomamö
child whisper into his ear and beg him to spare the tree, explaining its importance in the fragile ecosystem
. When the man awakes, he leaves his axe at the foot of the tree and walks away.
Lynne Cherry conceived the idea for The Great Kapok Tree
while on a train ride between Washington, DC and Connecticut. Afterwards, she started studying photographs from the World Wildlife Fund
and roaming through the New York Botanical Garden
for inspiration, but then decided to travel to Brazil
to experience the rainforest firsthand. Arriving in 1989, she took a Jeep into the forest and spent several weeks sketching and photographing the animals she observed.
Cherry initially had trouble finding a publisher for the book, as it was deemed "too controversial". However, she refused to alter the basic message.When the book was released in 1990, coinciding with the twentieth anniversay of Earth Day, Cherry told a reporter, "When kids grow up, in another 20 years, they'll be the people making the decisions. If they're raised with these ideas ingrained in them, it will affect national policy. We will have raised a whole generation of environmentalists."
Upon its release, the book received mixed reviews from some critics. Kimberly Olson Fakih in the Los Angeles Times
praised it for its "splendid paintings in tropical colors" but said the story was undermined by "soap-box oratory". Similarly, Susan Bolotin in the New York Times
said the book had "lush illustrations" but suffered from "peculiar language" and "preachiness". However, the book proved to be a popular seller. The first printing of 15,000 copies sold out within a few weeks after the book's release, and by 1995, it had sold a quarter-million copies. Many American elementary teachers started using the book in their classes, and the story even inspired some school plays.
The Great Kapok Tree has since received a Charlotte Award from the New York State Reading Association. It has also been named an NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children, an American Bookseller's Association "Pick of the Lists", and an International Reading Association Teacher's Choice.