Talking Trees, Leafing Through Archives

Author of children's book about a tree – we've met him before

[Editor's Note: HD, a.k.a. Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, is also publisher of an online series of interviews on a teeter totter. Introductions to new Teeter Talks also appear on The Chronicle's website.]

Robb Johnston

Last week, Robb Johnston rode the AATA bus from Ypsilanti into Ann Arbor and walked from downtown to my front porch take his turn on the teeter totter. [Robb Johnston's Talk]

Johnston has written and illustrated a self-published children’s book called “The Woodcutter and The Most Beautiful Tree.” And whenever anyone pitches me Chronicle coverage of a project they’re proud of, my first thought is: “Can I get a teeter totter ride out of this?”

Before Johnston’s ride, I test-read his children’s book the best way I could think of, given that my wife Mary and I do not have children: I read the book aloud to her, and did my best to pretend that she was four years old. It was my own first read through the book, so I was satisfied when I did not stumble too badly over the part of the woodcutter’s refrain that goes, “Thwickety THWAK, Thwickety THWAK.”

Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” notwithstanding, I think it’s fair to expect that a children’s book with a title like “The Woodcutter and The Most Beautiful Tree” will end well and leave everyone with smiles all around. And it does. So it’s not like I was truly surprised when I turned that one page near the end that reveals exactly how the final encounter between The Most Beautiful Tree and the Woodcutter ends.

But the book’s text and its illustrations pull the reader along to that point, and suggest so unmistakably a dark and dreadful ending, that when I did turn that page, I gulped a genuine breath of relief that she did not wind up getting milled into lumber at the end. [The tree in Johnston's book is female.] Well, yes, you might conclude that I am just that dopey. Or more generously, you might try sometime reading aloud a book you’ve never seen before.

But speaking of things we’ve seen before, some Chronicle readers might be thinking: Haven’t we seen this guy Robb Johnston before? Why yes, you have.

Once Johnston arrived for his totter ride, pre-tottering conversation revealed how The Chronicle had previously encountered him. In April 2010, in his capacity as a temporary city worker in Ann Arbor’s natural area preservation (NAP) program, he had been helping a group of volunteers clear brush on the Argo earthen berm. I’d run past on the path and stopped to inquire in hey-mister-whatcha-doing fashion. And I’d logged the encounter as a Stopped.Watched. item – he’s mentioned there by first name only.

Later when I searched through The Chronicle’s archives for “Robb,” I learned that a few days before the Argo encounter, we’d published an article about the controlled burns conducted by NAP, which mentioned Johnston and includes a photograph of him.

Johnston is currently on his regular extended break from the city, which is part of what defines him as a temporary worker. He’ll start back in a few weeks.

This totter-ride encounter with a city worker, in his guise as a children’s book author, reminded me of some text that was included in the original About The Chronicle section, when we launched this publication in September 2008 [the text has been revised since then]:

… every day we encounter eccentric, enterprising, or regular people doing the remarkable or even the routine.

My recollection is that the sentiment was meant to reflect the idea that our appointed and elected officials are regular people, whose work for the public is a part of the routine – and that’s exactly why it’s worth documenting, just as other routine activity by regular folks is also important to document.

To be clear, Johnston does not strike me as eccentric. He comes across as a regular guy. And he’s now found his way into The Chronicle doing both the routine (his job as a city worker) and the remarkable (writing and illustrating a children’s book).

I’d like to wrap up this introduction to Johnston’s Talk by making a suggestion to those Chronicle readers who still think that an actual children’s book is a routine part of childhood that makes for remarkable memories. You know the kind – a big book that small hands can still handle, with painstakingly hand-drawn illustrations, the kind that you can read aloud and turn pages together with your kid or your spouse, if you don’t have kids. That suggestion is this: Buy the book and read it to a kid. And there’s no reason to wait for Christmas – it has a Christmas ending, but I wouldn’t call it a Christmas book.

For readers who’d prefer not to order online, it’s available at two bricks-and-mortar locations: Vault of Midnight at 219 S. Main St. in downtown Ann Arbor, and Fun 4 All on 2742 Washtenaw Ave.

In thinking about how to read this particular book to children, I’d like to share an insight: I’m pretty sure think that reading this book on a teeter totter with a child would be a mistake. Depending on the child’s ability to appreciate irony, awkward questions could arise: Isn’t this board made out of a tree? Did a woodcutter chop her down to make this teeter totter?!

What, if anything, is there to say to that? Sorry, kid, but not every tree is The Most Beautiful Tree. So maybe it’s better to just choose a comfortable chair.