Book Review Of "My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography Of A Climbing Tree"
Published: April 27th, 2018

Reviewed by Mary F. Holahan

Curator of Illustration, Delaware Art Museum

In this fantastical tale, by turns charming and pensive, Shelly Reuben gives us a park-dwelling, talking tree as our storyteller. And this tree offers not idle chatter but glimpses into a rich inner life and – stationary though he is – lots of adventures.

Through the tree’s magical eyes and voice, we meet a panorama of very real people who find comfortable seating and deep solace in his welcoming branches. From this leafy perch, we too are viewers, observing a community’s unfolding joys, sorrows, memories, and triumphs. All of the intertwined characters could be novels unto themselves.

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Curious children, romantic couples, and sage elders share their experiences in a city’s green park not knowing about the enchanted autobiography underway in their midst.

The title is a reminder that even the most verdant refuge is never perfect. An interloper determined to bring dissension to the cast of characters must be uprooted. It is in this battle against evil and its resolution – played out in scenes ranging from witty to poignant – that the book’s deeper meanings come to the surface.

There’s a lot to think about here. Our values, intergenerational bonds, justice, war and peace, care for nature, respect for the past, and hope for the future. The interdependence of all creatures. Most of all survival, especially of the human spirit.

It’s a delicate balance, an idea that could early turn saccharine: an imaginary being in the midst of real people. But brisk story-telling, adroit dialogue, and authentic emotion keep the escapades of the tree and his friends lively and light-hearted.

The black-and-white illustrations (color would have been too garish for the story’s unearthly narrator) have just the right combination of realism and fantasy. Strong graphic lines mix with wisp-like images as if to echo the tree’s magic powers. Otherworldly, but still … human. And humane.