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Happy Arbor Day! These 20 books will change the way you think about trees

The trees in this photo are amazing (and not just because they happen to be growing in a very Instagrammable heart shape around Baker Lake in Quebec, Canada.) Read on for a tree appreciation reading list for Arbor Day.
Sebastien St-Jean
/
AFP via Getty Images
The trees in this photo are amazing (and not just because they happen to be growing in a very Instagrammable heart shape around Baker Lake in Quebec, Canada.) Read on for a tree appreciation reading list for Arbor Day.

Trees communicate. They migrate. They protect. They heal. This year for Arbor Day this year we climbed into the NPR archives to find our favorite arboreal fiction, nonfiction and kids' books.

Scroll down to find excerpts from interviews and reviews, plus recommendations from Books We Love — NPR's annual, year-end books guide.

Nonfiction

/ Avid Reader Press
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Avid Reader Press

Twelve Trees: The Deep Roots of Our Future by Daniel Lewis, 2024

There are tens of thousands of tree species on Earth, but writer Daniel Lewis focused in on just a dozen in his book, Twelve Trees. Lewis spoke with Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered in March: "The natural world needs our attentions, plural ..." he said. "I want people to understand that the salvation of trees can be our salvation."

Lewis believes trees and people have more in common than you might think. "These 12 trees each say something about ourselves because trees are not just about trees. ... We live among them, and they live among us, so I think we have an obligation to understand them better."

/ Random House
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Random House

Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World by Christian Cooper, 2023

Christian Cooper was birdwatching in Central Park in 2020 when a white woman falsely accused him of threatening her. His book Better Living Through Birding chronicles life as a Black birder, gay activist and Marvel comics writer and editor. In 2023 he told Terry Gross on Fresh Air: "Birds belong to no one. They are for everyone to enjoy. And it is an incredibly healing thing to be out there in whatever habitat the birds are in, to connect with the wild and to just see these feathered wonders going about their business of life."

/ St. Martin's Press
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St. Martin's Press

The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth by Ben Rawlence, 2022

Trees are on the move — in ways they shouldn't need to be. Structured as a study of half a dozen trees from the boreal forest – the wide band of trees near the Arctic Circle – The Treeline traces the canopy around the world, noting where trees have vanished or are creeping ever northward. But this isn't just a landscape diary; whether in Canada, Greenland, or Norway, author Ben Rawlence emphasizes portraits of people, especially Indigenous communities facing the front lines of climate change, and scientists chronicling the imminent, dramatic changes ahead of us. A sounding alarm, and a call to action.
— Genevieve Valentine, author and book critic

/ Knopf
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Knopf

Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard, 2021

Trees are "social creatures" that communicate with each other in cooperative ways ecologist Suzanne Simardtold Dave Davies on Fresh Air in 2021. Her memoir Finding the Mother Tree describes her research on cooperation and symbiosis in the forest, and shares how her study of trees took on a new resonance when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Simard explained that trees in a forest are often linked to each other via an older tree she calls a "mother" or "hub" tree. "The seedlings will link into the network of the old trees and benefit from that huge uptake resource capacity," Simard said. "And the old trees would also pass a little bit of carbon and nutrients and water to the little seedlings, at crucial times in their lives, that actually help them survive."

The Journeys of Trees: A Story About Forests, People, and the Future by Zach St. George, 2020

/ W. W. Norton & Company
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W. W. Norton & Company

Forests migrate: They are on the move away from danger and always have been. Now, these are not the dour-faced Ents of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, who are downright speedy compared to the agonizingly slow march of Earth's trees and forests. But the journeys of trees, and the forces that drive that titular phrase, are an engrossing tale of nature's survival, the increasing speed of climate change and of the people working to preserve these most ancient creatures. Author and reporter Zach St. George presents a thoroughly researched story about what we can learn from some of Earth's oldest residents if we just stop and listen.
— Steve Mullis, former editor/producer,
Morning Edition

/ The Bitter Southerner
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The Bitter Southerner

Hanging Tree Guitars by Freeman Vines with Zoe van Buren, photography by Timothy Duffy, 2020

Part memoir, part photo essay, Hanging Tree Guitars is the story of North Carolina luthier Freeman Vines. He crafts guitars from found materials and hunks of old wood, including some from a tree once used for a lynching. Vines, 78, explains how the wood talks to him, and he reflects on growing up in a sharecropper's family under Jim Crow. "I had learned that the white man was what controlled the code," he says. Timothy Duffy's tintype images of Vines and his guitars are stunning, including one where Vines is sitting in a field with his guitars strung on a frame overhead.
— Debbie Elliott, correspondent, National Desk

/ Penguin Life
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Penguin Life

Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Qing Li, 2018

In 2018, Marcelo Gleiser wrote an essay for NPR about the practice of forest bathing. Gleiser wrote: "In Japan, the country that has the highest population density in the world but also vast expanses of green forests (about 3,000 miles of them), an ancient tradition tries to balance out the crush from urban living. It's known as shinrin-yoku, or 'forest bathing.' It's the practice of spending prolonged periods of time with trees in order to gain from their many health benefits. ... Dr. Qing Li, the world's foremost expert in forest medicine, introduces readers to the healing practice of forest bathing — and the art and science of how trees can enrich your life. ... Dr. Li's book is itself a tribute to forests and the magnificence of trees, featuring more than 100 color photographs of forests around the world."

/ Viking
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Viking

Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape by Jill Jonnes, 2016

Next time you're outside, look up. Trees are so ubiquitous that it's easy to take them for granted. But Urban Forests makes you stop and pay attention to the "living landmarks" standing tall in America's cities. From Thomas Jefferson's time to present day, Jill Jonnes explores the essential roles trees play in urban centers — filtering air, providing habitat, offering shade, calming nerves and more. I loved this book because it's both for history lovers and for tree devotees. It's a good read — best done under the canopy of your favorite tree.
— Jeanine Herbst, news anchor

/ Greystone
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Greystone

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst, 2016

In 2016, Alva Noë wrote an essay for NPR about Peter Wohlleben's book The Hidden Life of Trees. Noë said: "The book is dreamy and strange; it tells about trees and their tightknit communities in the forest. The book is full of science. But it's written from the standpoint of a person who lives and works with trees in the forest rather than someone who studies them. ... The Wood Wide Web he describes is a community of trees and microbes, aphids, fungi and birds, one in which dense connectivity and mutual interdependence are the norm (and are missing in the forest-farms of the modern world). Communication, shared and competing interests, learning and adaptation, all play a critical role."

Fiction

/ Graywolf Press
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Graywolf Press

The Tree Doctor by Marie Mutsuki Mockett, 2024

A woman returns to her California hometown to help her ailing mother move into a care facility. Dismayed by the condition of her mother's garden, she calls a nursery for help and meets Dean — the tree doctor. As book critic Michael Schaub wrote: "Her attempt to save the fuchsias leads her to a whirlwind relationship that confirms to her what she already, in the back of her mind, knows: Her life as a wife and mother has caused her to neglect herself, and she needs to save herself even more urgently than she needs to rescue her mother's flowers. The Tree Doctor is an excellent novel, one that beautifully chronicles one woman's response to a series of life-changing crises."

/ Bloomsbury Publishing
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Bloomsbury Publishing

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, 2021

The characters in this book are immigrants from Cyprus, the Mediterranean island where Greece and Turkey went to war in the 1970s. But the narrator? It's a fig tree. Novelist Elif Shafak spoke with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep in 2021 about her decision tell the story from a tree's perspective. "I wanted an observer that lives longer than human beings," Shafak said. "Trees have this longevity. They were here before us, and they will most probably be here long after we humans have disappeared. ... What does it mean to be rooted, uprooted and rerooted?"

/ W. W. Norton & Company
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W. W. Norton & Company

The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers, 2018

The Overstory begins with the nine characters whose lives will intersect as the novel unfolds. Each has some kind of connection with a tree. These stories, so beautifully told and intricately crafted, perfectly set the stage for this saga about a small band of radical environmentalists who are determined to save an old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. They pay a heavy price for their determination. As Richard Powers pulls you into their lives and fills you with astonishing facts about trees, he deftly pits that price against the cost of allowing these magnificent forests to be destroyed.
— Lynn Neary, former correspondent, Culture Desk

/ Harry N. Abrams
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Harry N. Abrams

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, 2016

Frances Hardinge's Gothic fantasy The Lie Tree starts in the middle of a dreary downpour and feels like it ought only to be read during one as well. It's the story of Faith Sunderly, her naturalist father's mysterious murder and the magical tree that grows truth-revealing fruits only when Faith whispers lies to it. This book feels destined to be read in the middle of a dark and stormy night, preferably under the covers and with a secret flashlight. However, Hardinge's writing is so beautiful and her atmosphere so evocative that it could probably leave you shivering even if you read it on a sunny tropical beach.
— Margaret Willison, librarian and book critic

Kids' Books

/ Dawn Publications
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Dawn Publications

Listen to the Language of the Trees: A Story of How Forests Communicate Underground by Tera Kelley, illustrated by Marie Hermansson, 2022

If you know about the "Wood Wide Web," then you know that trees communicate through the fungi that connect their roots. Still, did you know about how they support one another with extra food? How they can tell their offspring apart from other trees? How they can warn other trees when insects attack? Consider this the preeminent book for kids on the topic, complemented with illustrations both beautiful and clear-cut, making a tangle of a topic as easy as (forgive me) falling off a log! (For ages 4 to 8)
— Betsy Bird, book critic and author of Long Road to the Circus

/ Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
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Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Berry Song by Michaela Goade, 2022

Radiant illustrations by Caldecott-winning illustrator Michaela Goade (We Are Water Protectors) practically leap from the pages of her latest picture book with joy and warmth. Goade's first foray into authorship is a triumphant love song to the Tlingit people. A heartwarming story of a girl and her grandmother, and the joy they get from nature's offerings. A rich and beautiful book meant to be shared. (For ages 4 to 8)
— Juanita Giles, executive director, Virginia Children's Book Festival

/ Rocky Pond Books
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Rocky Pond Books

The Tree in Me by Corinna Luyken, 2021

"The first thing you will notice about Corinna Luyken's The Tree in Me is the pink," wrote Juanita Giles,executive director of the Virginia Children's Book Festival, in 2021. "Not a soft, gentle pink; not an Easter egg pink, but NEON PINK, and lots of it. Pink cheeks, pink flowers, pink trees, pink AIR. Neon pink is practically bursting from the cover like, well, like happiness."

In spare, poetic text, the book describes how every child is like a tree, rooted in nature. "In all of my original sketches for the book, I was using shades of green," Luyken told Giles. "But as the visual story started to develop, I realized that the green was making the book feel too literal ... and I wanted it to be much more expansive and universal than that. I wanted it to be a larger, shape shifting, timeless tree." (For ages 4 to 8)

/ Chronicle Books
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Chronicle Books

Everything You Need for a Treehouse by Carter Higgins, illustrated by Emily Hughes, 2018

Get ready for your imagination to explode! Read this book, and pass out the crayons — or set up a library fort! Everything You Need for a Treehouse is all about seeing something that's not there and imagining your world as you want it to be. From building treehouses to just lying on your back and telling stories about clouds — anything is possible. I wasn't surprised to get to the end and see that it was written by a librarian, because every imagined treehouse feels like a book in itself, capturing a mood or a need. The one made of glass and filled with flowers, the one that looks like a library, they're all cozier and more fun than the next. (For ages 3 to 6)
— Justine Kenin, editor,
All Things Considered

/ Square Fish
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Square Fish

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate, 2017

Did you know trees can talk? An impressive, more-than-200-year-old oak named Red is the narrator of Katherine Applegate's Wishtree. For centuries, neighbors have been leaving their wishes on scraps of paper and cloth in Red's hallows and branches. When Samar and her Muslim family move nearby, they are met with intolerance and hostility. Red is touched by Samar's simple wish and determined to make it come true, even at the risk of being cut down. This tender story is powerful without being preachy. (For ages 8 to 12)
— Lisa Yee, author of
Maizy Chen's Last Chance

/ Frances Lincoln Children's
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Frances Lincoln Children's

The Night Gardener by Terry Fan and Eric Fan, 2016

Beautifully drawn, this evocative book is deceptively simple. When a boy discovers that the tree outside his window has been magically transformed into an owl, he seeks to find the reason why. As more and more wondrous topiaries appear all along Grimloch Lane, the mystery deepens. That's when the boy, William, meets an enigmatic man who enlists his help. In The Night Gardener, brothers Terry and Eric Fan have created a gorgeous book about a small town that comes alive, and a young boy whose life has been irrevocably changed. (For ages 4 to 8)
— Lisa Yee, author of
Maizy Chen's Last Chance

/ Greenwillow Books
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Greenwillow Books

Tap the Magic Tree by Christie Matheson, 2013

Who wouldn't want the opportunity to take a tree from a bare trunk to spring blossoms, to fruitful summer, to loss in autumn, to winter snow, and back to spring beginnings again? Simple instructions in spare, rhyming text encourage readers to add and subtract elements — tap once to add a leaf, touch buds to turn them into flowers, shake the tree to make the apples kerplop to the ground. Christie Matheson offers children the opportunity to help a tree grow and change throughout a year — what a powerful feeling! (For ages 4 to 8)
— Mara Alpert, children's librarian, Los Angeles Public Library

Copyright 2024 NPR

Beth Novey is a producer for NPR's Arts, Books & Culture desk. She creates and edits web features, plans multimedia projects, and coordinates the web presence for Fresh Air and Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!