The Tree Lady — Perfect Picture Book Friday

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I had another book scheduled for today, but as I am staying with one of my writing buddies and she introduced me to a delightful biography of a tree-loving woman here in San Diego, I couldn’t pass up the chance of highlighting it today.

Title: The Tree Lady, The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever

Author: H. Joseph Hopkins

Illustrator: Jill McElmurry

Publisher: Beach Lane Books, 2013

Ages: 5-8

Themes: biography, tree planting, Women’s History Month, California history, San Diego history, following one’s dreams, ecology


Katherine Olivia Sessions grew up in the woods of Northern California. She gathered leaves from oaks and elms. She collected needles from pines and redwoods. And she braided them together to make necklaces and bracelets.

It was the 1860’s, and girls from Kate’s side of town were’t supposed to get their hands dirty.

But Kate did.


Katherine Olivia Sessions never thought she’d live in a place without trees. After all, Kate grew up among the towering pines and redwoods of Northern California. Kate Sessions had a healthy appetite for learning from an early age. Her life with liberal educated parents in the Bay area began with lots of independence. Young Kate was interested in science. She began studying botany and plants when she was very young. This was unusual for young girls, but it didn’t stop her. After becoming the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a degree in science, she took a job as a teacher far south in the dry desert town of San Diego. Where the death of trees almost made her quit her job.

This trailblazing young woman decided the desert city needed trees and she singlehandedly started a massive movement that transformed the town into the green, garden-filled oasis it is today. Now, more than 100 years after Kate first arrived in San Diego, her gorgeous gardens and parks can be found all over the city. As well as a canyon named after her just two block from where I am staying!

Why I like this book:

This picture book is part fascinating biography, part inspirational story. It is a story about following your dreams, using your talents, and staying strong in the face of adversity, especially when society would exclude your views and action for reasons of gender or whatever. Adults and young readers will be inspired by Kate’s passion and perseverance.

Kate Sessions, is known as the mother of the exquisite park: Balboa Park, containing the San Diego Zoo and other famous museums. Her tree legacy is now being continued in San Diego by TreeSD who plans to make an “Urban Canopy” covering the City of San Diego.  Counter intuitively, having more trees will actually save precious water by not allowing so much to evaporate since they retain water and shade the area, lowering the temperature of their microclimate. The language is lyrical and engaging with wonderful use of repetition reinforcing that Kate followed her heart not society’s expectations!

“But not Kate.” “But Kate did.”

Jill McElmurry’s gouache illustrations capture the lush green of the northern California forests and then allows readers to experience the transformation of San Diego from a barren desert to the green oasis of Session’s many trees. Kate’s hard work over years is also clearly depicted in the illustrations. I love the details about the nations where she hunted down trees that would survive in the climate and the species she chose.

The book left me with a few ecological questions such as how the trees she brought in affected the native plants and animals? But It is a compelling and attractive biography to add to units on ecology, trees, women’s history month or local history if you live on the West coast.


This text could be paired with:

    • The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers


    • A Tree for Emmy by Mary Ann Rodman


    • Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees by Franck Prévot


Check out local tree planting initiatives with your children/students: 

Each week a group of bloggers reviews picture books we feel would make great educational reads. To help teachers, caregivers and parents, we have included resources and/or activities with each of our reviews. A complete list of the thousands of books we have reviewed can be found sorted alphabetically and by topics, here on Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

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16 Responses to The Tree Lady — Perfect Picture Book Friday

  1. Jane Healy says:

    Thanks for introducing me to this book, Joanna! Sounds great for Earth Day, Arbor Day, Women’s History Month, or any ol’ time!

  2. This really is a beautiful book. So glad you shared it! Perfect for Earth Day. I love true stories about strong women. She certainly changed the landscape of San Diego!

  3. Love this book – great refrain throughout.

  4. Great book and one of my favorite PB covers!

  5. Patricia Nozell says:

    I read this one recently and loved that an expectation-defying woman persevered to create such a lasting legacy that continues to beautify San Diego so long after her death! I also read in the author’s note that he noticed the greenery of San Diego while visiting, researched to discover why, and then had to write her story. A great reminder to writers that inspiration surrounds us wherever we are and a great lead-in to Earth Day next week.

  6. Leaving a “tree legacy” has always appealed to me also. Kate sounds like a terrific Earth Day hero. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I love picture book biographies. It is such a great way to learn about historical people. The perspective of the cover is unique. I hope to find this book in my library. Thanks for this suggestion.

  8. My library didn’t have a copy of this book so I have to wait while they bring it in from a neighboring library. I can’t wait to read about this amazing woman!

  9. I’ll definitely check this out. Balboa Park is gorgeous. What a fabulous legacy!

  10. Andrea Mack says:

    Sounds so interesting! I am really starting to like picture book biographies.

  11. One of my very favorite PB biographies. And the art work, especially that cover, is just stunning. So happy to own a copy 🙂

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