The Egg Tree, by Katherine Milhous: Easter Picture Books

Title: The Egg Tree
Author: Katherine Milhous
Age Category: 3 to 5 years +
Genre: Easter picture books

Easter is coming, and so I’ve been planning to review some Easter picture books.  However, when I started looking around online and in the library for good titles, it seemed there really weren’t that many.  Either I found a lot of “cute” but shallow books about eggs and bunnies—which I liken to marshmallow Peeps: sweet but not very nourishing—or I found illustrated versions of the New Testament text.  Now, don’t get me wrong: marshmallow Peeps and the New Testament have their place; my kids will likely get a dose of both this Easter.  However, in my view, neither make for particularly good picture books.

Now, thankfully there are a few good picture books for Easter out there, two of which I’ll share with you in this and the next post.  The first one—1951 Caldecott Medal winner The Egg Tree by Katherine Milhous—is only loosely connected with the biblical Easter tradition, as I will describe.  In the next post I will review Petook: An Easter Story by Caryll Houselander and Tomie dePaola, which has a more direct connection with the traditional Easter story.

The Egg Tree, by Katherine Milhous: Summary

The Egg Tree by Katherine Milhous is set in the Red Hills of Pennsylvania, in a rural Pennsylvania Dutch community.  The picture book opens with two young children—Katy and Carl—spending their first Easter on their grandmother’s farm, along with four of their cousins.  The children wake up early for an Easter egg hunt, but Katy can’t seem to find any eggs in her unfamiliar surroundings.  Feeling discouraged, she makes her way up into the attic and, to her surprise, discovers six beautifully decorated eggs that her grandmother had packed away many years ago.

Katy brings the eggs downstairs, and her equally surprised grandmother declares that while Katy may not have found the most eggs, she found the most beautiful eggs.  “Grandmom” explains how she had made the eggs herself when she was a little girl.  She gets a tree and decorates it with the colorful eggs—like a Christmas tree—which inspires the kids to make more of the eggs, and soon the children have decorated a large tree with many eggs (and an even bigger one the next year!).  Each year people come from miles around to see the family’s egg tree.

Subjective Appeal: Charming Story, Attractive Illustrations

Children will find several things appealing about The Egg Tree.  First, the story is charming.  Katherine Milhous ably conveys the excitement of Easter morning, and captures the reader’s imagination with the beautiful egg tree tradition.  However, what I found most appealing was Katy’s journey from feeling left out to feeling included.  At first Katy feels that the Easter Rabbit has forgotten her, since she can’t find any eggs.  However, when her discovery in the attic precipitates a wonderful annual tradition, she ends up feeling like an important part of the celebration.  In the final lines of the picture book Katy is anxious to provide a flower-petal breakfast for the Easter Rabbit: “It would never do to forget the Easter Rabbit, for the Easter Rabbit had not forgotten her.”

The illustrations and overall design of this picture book are also very attractive.  The bold-colored illustrations are simple yet artful, and transmit a traditional feel that goes along with the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions that Milhous portrays.  The decorated eggs are particularly attractive, bearing traditional designs called “The Bright and Morning Star,” “The Deer on the Mountain,” “The Cooing Dove,” “The Pomegranate,” and “The Horn-blowing Rooster.”  Also, most pages have top and bottom borders decorated with simple solid colors, or interesting traditional designs—just like the special eggs in the story.

Developmental Value: Rich Traditions, Religious Roots

In addition to being attractive, this picture book is developmentally valuable for children in several ways.  First, the book provides an educational view into the traditional culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch.  As one reads, one absorbs the slow simple pace of rural life.  In this story the Easter Rabbit is not a fictional creature, but rather a real rabbit that eats flower petals in the beautiful springtime garden.  Moreover, the children do not hunt for plastic or chocolate eggs, but for real hard-boiled eggs, which they proceed to eat for breakfast.  Here, then, is a refreshing break from the commercialism of contemporary Easter.  One review of The Egg Tree on LibraryThing.com worries that the simplicity of the traditions might seem “a tad dull” to the modern child.  However, I think the story and illustrations are enough to hold young children, and it is just plain good for this simpler, slower life to seep into the soul of the hurried modern child.

As I noted, The Egg Tree is not really about the biblical Easter story; rather, it is centrally about the egg tree tradition and the coming of spring.  However, an acute observer will notice hints of the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist religious roots of the Pennsylvania Dutch.  For example, church bells ring in the distance on Easter morning, and Grandmom puts off decorating more eggs until the day after Easter, since Easter is not a day for work.  “Today we keep Easter,” she explains.  The names of the traditional egg designs also draw on biblical imagery.  For example, “The Bright Morning Star” is a term applied to Christ in Rev. 22.16, “The Deer on the Mountain” is an image from Psalm 18.33, and images of “Pomegranates” were used to decorate the Israelite priests’ robes (Ex. 28.33) and the pillars in Solomon’s temple (1 Ki. 7.20).  Thus, the book can also serve as a beginning point for discussions about the biblical Easter tradition for families that are so inclined.

Finally, this picture book might also be a catalyst for Easter artwork.  Milhous helpfully includes instructions for making an Easter egg tree on the back cover of the book, so you have no excuse not to make an egg tree of your own!  =)

In sum, I highly recommend The Egg Tree by Katherine Milhous.  I encourage you to find it in your local library, or to support our work by purchasing it through the links in this post, or in our children’s books online bookstore.  The About.com site has more recommendations for Easter picture books if you are interested.

Have you read The Egg Tree by Katherine Milhous?  If so, tell me what you think of it in a comment.

Categories: 3 to 5 yearsBook ReviewsCaldecott
Tags: Caldecott MedalChildren's BookEasterKatherine Milhouspicture bookThe Egg Tree
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