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Tree Girl: Helping Young Adults Gain a New Perspective
Ben Mikaelsen. Tree Girl. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2004.
“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
Summary and Review
is the story of one girl who did survive the
that occurred in
. The real Tree Girl’s identity is kept secret to protect her current work with the resistance movement in
. In this story she is given the name Gabriela, but is known as
Laj Ali Re Jaub
, which means tree girl in her native
. 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
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,
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
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
where she lived. By connecting the civilization of the
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
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,
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,
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:
from the perspective of any character
the Guatemalan Civil War
culture/daily life of Mayans and Students
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:
The Girl from Chimel
by Rigoberta Menchu
The House on Mango Street
by Sandra Cisneros
The Things We Carried
by Tim O'Brien
by Anne Cameron
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.
won the International Reading Association
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.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’brien
A long way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
Other Books by
Rescue Josh McGuire
Touching Spirit Bear
Ghost of Spirit Bear
Sparrow Hawk Red
Milkweed: A Teacher's Guide
- Newspaper In Education (NIE) Teacher's Guide to
; 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.
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