Literature Review: Brother Oak, Sister Linden

Līga Horgana is back with a literature review of Brother Oak, Sister Linden, a book written by Jānis Baltvilks, illustrated by Edgars Folks, and translated into English by Ilze Kreišmane.

After spending the last few months researching trees in Latvian literature and both traditional and modern culture, I came to the logical decision to write a review about the book Brother Oak, Sister Linden by Jānis Baltvilks and Edgars Folks. The work was originally published in 1985 as part of the series of books “I Want to Know Everything” (“Gribu visu zināt”). Its goal was to educate preschool kids about the forest and the most common types of trees in Latvia as well as to raise awareness of the importance of treating nature responsibly.

In 2017, the publisher Janis Roze reissued an updated version of this work translated by Ilze Kreišmane. In the preface of the new edition, scientific advisor Vents Zvaigzne has written, “may this book inspire in you the desire to breathe the smell of a green and living forest, to listen to the trees and the birds and to be a part of the world of nature.” (6.)

Author Jānis Baltvilks (1944–2003) was a biologist, an ornithologist, truly interested in nature, and had a passion for educating kids about it. He is best known for his great contribution to children’s literature. Each year since 2004, a prize named after him has been presented in children's literature and book art.

Juris Folks’s illustration style cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s. To be honest, as a kid I was both amused and scared by his work in the different books he had illustrated that I found on our bookshelves. In Brother Oak, Sister Linden the illustrations depict very precisely the characteristics of each tree’s leaves, seeds, blossoms and fruit. However, a surreal feeling is created through the usage of unnaturally bright colours such as pink and purple – fully uncharacteristic to the traditional Latvian earthy colour palette. The symbols of Folks’s artwork reveals the mythical layers of what the tree actually means to Latvians. They are not only plants and useful resource for people. Like in many other parts of the world, Latvians have always seen the link between nature and the human world as well as its connection with the divine reality. 

“Many stories, fairy tales and folk songs teach us to be considerate of trees. Trees were often assigned human qualities, and people were, in turn, compared to trees. There were two trees in particular that ancient Latvians considered very special – the oak and the linden. The oak was the symbol of a strong, patriotic young man... The linden was the symbol of a beautiful young woman...

Even today, people sometimes plant an oak tree in honour of the birth of a son and a linden in honour of the birth of a daughter. On the evening of Līgo night and the following day, the summer solstice, men still receive crowns made of oak leaves.” (11)

Indeed, Jānis Baltvilks’s work has a lot of Latvian folklore material included, such as songs and traditional beliefs. The book also invites the reader to discover the places and trees around by mentioning interesting facts about certain of them such as Tūtere oak and Linden of Gods (Elku liepa) which are not only the biggest ones in Latvia but also in the Baltic States.

I am glad that this work has been updated and republished – as a new book, we can find it on the shelves of the book stores. Unlike an encyclopedia with fragmentary short impersonal bits of information, this is a perfect whole story about Latvians and trees where the voice of the author is clear and strong. In fact, not only kids need to learn about forests and trees. Urban people are so far from nature that this work will be a good reminder for everyone of the great importance nature has always played in our lives.

A collection of Edgars Folks's artwork can be found here:

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