Tree Girl: Helping Young Adults Gain a New Perspective

Ben Mikaelsen. Tree Girl. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2004.
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“The brutal military massacres that happened in Central America during the early 1980’s are a matter of historical record. Tens of thousands of indigenous people were raped, tortured, and killed during the genocide that occurred in Guatemala alone. More than four hundred fifty villages were destroyed, their homes burned to the ground. Few children escaped to tell their stories” (Ben Mikaelsen, Author of Tree Girl).

Summary and Review

.Tree Girl is the story of one girl who did survive the genocide that occurred in Guatemala. The real Tree Girl’s identity is kept secret to protect her current work with the resistance movement in Mexico. In this story she is given the name Gabriela, but is known as Laj Ali Re Jaub, which means tree girl in her native Mayan language,Quiche. Gabriela finds “trust among the trees.” Their branches are like open arms that carry her closer to the sky and God. However, in the safety of the trees is where she watched her people be eliminated.

“The day the soldiers came, I pulled myself to the safety of a tree’s outstretched branches. What I saw changed me forever.”

These events occurred around the time of Gabriela's quinceañera, and what should have been one of the most cheerful periods of her life. The story takes her from the comforts of her canton, through the bloody massacres of nearly everyone she ever loved, throughout dreadful refugee camps, and back to her home again. However, Tree Girl is more than an unimaginable and heart wrenching account of genocide. It is a coming of age story that portrays courage and inspires hope. Gabriela loses faith for some time, but learns to once again “hold on to [her] dreams as tightly as [she] holds to the branches.” In doing so, she inspires hope in even the most horrendous of circumstances. Her story also defines the meaning of home. In the refugee camps Gabriela learns of America, where “even the poor have cars and live in buildings with windows and doors.” However, America could never be home. Home was where she could share the knowledge she has acquired with her community. Home is the land where she can return and “find the songs of [her] people, songs left by ancients.” Gabriela learned that she could not run from war. For her being female and Indio would always bring war even when the soldiers were gone. Her strength to fight the war would come from home.

The vivid imagery in Tree Girl shows more than the blood and death that are usually associated with this time and place. They also show the beauty of Gabriela’s culture, and the once peaceful canton, where she lived. By connecting the civilization of the indigenous people in Guatemala to a more complex and human context, this book provides purpose for the cause of restoring what once existed. The nature of this book encourages readers to increase their knowledge of other continents and appreciate the humanity that exists elsewhere.

Recommendations for Teachers

Tree Girl opens many opportunities for students and teachers to discuss and learn. It contains a wide variety of issues such as war, culture and identity , loss of loved ones, forced maturity, and struggling to survive in a harsh world. Because Gabriella is a 15-year-old, her character is easily related to by a younger crowd--who will likely be inspired by her courage, strength, and determination. On a cultural level, Tree Girl gives insight into the life of a modern day Mayan living in rural Guatemala. The cultural values of the Mayan people described in this book are realistic and offer a much different perspective for a technologically-reliant young reader. Also, Tree Girl is set during the Guatemalan Civil War, which can lead to great discussions and learning about the traumatic time in Guatemalan history. Though many young students will not have faced such trials as Gabriella, they will be able to see the connections between themselves and a young girl from a country and culture that they may not have studied before.

The activities that could help students understand, appreciate, and learn through Tree Girl are in endless number. However, some activities that could be done with Tree Girl are:

  • Writing a Journal from the perspective of any character
  • Google Mapping Gabriella's journey
  • Researching the Guatemalan Civil War
  • Comparing/Contrasting culture/daily life of Mayans and Students
  • Intense Discussions about war, family, education, gender roles, power, the USA's role in the war etc.
  • Building Photo Collages of Mayan people/Guatemalan Landscape
  • Writing a Short Story relating to Tree Girl (alternate endings, the student as the main character, etc.)

Tree girl would be well paired with books such as:

About Ben Mikaelsen

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Ben Mikaelsen has always enjoyed writing, but never considered a career as an author until college. When he was young he didn't receive encouragement from his parents to write. Disregarding his parents, he would carry a paper to bed in order to jot down ideas. While attending college, a professor enjoyed his writing an urged Ben to pursue it further. Since 1984 Ben has been a full time author.

Mikaelsen's books have won numerous awards. Tree Girl won the International Reading Association Teacher Choice List in 2005. It was also nominated for a South Carolina Young Adult Book Award. For a full list of awards visit Ben Mikaelsen's website.

When he is not traveling the world doing research for his stories Ben lives in a log cabin near Bozeman, Montana. He lives there with quite the unusual roommate, a 750 pound black bear named Buffy. He and Buffy have been together for 25 years. Ben does not believe that people should raise wild animals, but he adopted Buffy when the alternative was the extermination of Buffy, as he was used for research. Often while Buffy is hibernating, Ben will sit with him and write. They are close companions, even though Buffy believes that he owns Ben.
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"After the Guatemalan War"

This news clip gives information about the Guatemalan War, as well as the lasting effects it has had on the Guatemalan people. It is educational both because of its informational content as well as its visual content.Images of the Guatemalan land and its people are shown.

Recommended Reading

Other Books by Ben Mikaelsen

Additional Resources:

  • Milkweed: A Teacher's Guide - Newspaper In Education (NIE) Teacher's Guide to Milkweed; Complete with chapter questions, response activities, and additional resources
  • Jerry Spinelli Home Page - Check out the artist's official site where you can contact him directly, check out the FAQs, or find out if he will be coming to your city on a scheduled tour!

Podcast of Tree Girl

Reviewed by: Andrea Smith, Tracy Brosseit, Kendall Schuldt, and Rachel Diaz.