I’ve been waiting with eager anticipation for an opportunity to read The Tune is in the Tree by Maud Hart Lovelace for several years. As a huge fan of her Betsy-Tacy book series, I’ve long been intrigued by the lovely-sounding title of this book. Unfortunately it has been out of print for decades, and the copy my library holds of this book is in a special reference collection. My first attempts to find in via inter-library loan had failed, and I thought I would have to someday sit in the library to read it.
After finishing What Cabrillo Found, I thought I would try again to locate a copy via inter-library loan. And this time we were successful! I’ve never wanted to take a book selfie before, but Miss M and I were so excited to pick it up from the library that we took a picture with the book.
In some ways I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Tune is in the Tree. I wondered if maybe it had been out of print for so long because it really wasn’t very good. I did expect, however, that this would just be a sweet read aloud for Miss M and I. I was wonderfully surprised when my boys ended up falling in love with this book too!
The Tune is in the Tree is, in one sense, a fantasy story. But it is so much more than that with its beautiful and accurate nature setting. In The Tune is in the Tree, a young girl named Annie Jo is unexpectedly left alone at home, for what turns into many days. Her mom had left suddenly to look for Annie Jo’s missing aviator father, and a neighbor that is supposed to watch her is unexpectedly detained with an injury. Both mom and neighbor assume the girl is with the other, and no adult is suspecting that Annie Jo has been left alone — an unrealistic premise in this modern age of mobile phones and helicopter parenting, but not so unreasonable 65-85 years ago! (This book was written by Maud in the 1930s and published in 1950.)
On her first evening home alone, a robin comes and speaks to Annie Jo, offering her comfort. She invites the Robin family to come live with her, but R.B. Robin has a different solution — Miss Ruby (a hummingbird) will magically cause Annie Jo to shrink to bird-size and grow wings. Annie Jo will visit the birds! Thus begins a delightful adventure of Annie Jo visiting various bird families, learning of their joys and struggles. The robins teach her to fly. She learns of the “perfidious Mrs. Cowbird” from the robins and the catbird. Annie Jo visits the oven-like nest of Mrs. Ovenbird (who, in a fanciful addition to the story, bakes cookies in her unusual nest on the ground). She enjoys beautiful music with the thrushes, and has a ball given in her honor by the orioles, before having a happy return to full-size life with her parents.
If there is any antagonist in the story, it is the “perfidious Mrs. Cowbird,” who lingers at the fringes of the storyline, imposing her egg on unwelcome nests (just as the Cowbird does in real life):
“She’s so perfidiously clever,” said R.B., that she choses the nest of someone whose babies feed on the same sort of bird her babies like. ”
“And she usually picks on birds smaller than herself,” added Mr. Catbird, “so the the Cowbird baby is always the strongest in the nest. It snatches all the food and crowds the others into a corner. Sometimes it actually sits on them.”
“She’s clever,” said Mrs. Catbird. “But she’s no more clever than Mrs. Robin and I. We refuse to be imposed upon.” And so saying she nipped her beak into the strange egg, lifted it over the side of the nest and dropped it. It smashed to the ground below … “I do the same thing,” said Mrs. Robin. “I always hate to, though.”
“I don’t,” said Mrs. Catbird smartly. And spreading her feathers in triumph she sat down on her own pretty eggs, while her mate, mounting high in the hawthorn bush began to sing.
Maud Hart Lovelace’s writing is beautiful and detailed. We really enjoyed how she brought to life the habits and “personalities” of the various birds. Equally charming are the illustrations by Eloise Wilkins. The style really fits the story and helps us picture the birds in the story:
As I mentioned, I planned this as a read-aloud for Miss M and I. After Miss M and I read the first two chapters together, my hubby left on a work trip. Work travel for hubby always disrupts our usual bedtime reading schedule. One night in order to both satisfy the boys and Miss M’s desires to read, I offered to let the boys stay up extra late if they wanted to sit quietly for Miss M’s story as well.
I wasn’t sure how it would work out, but they enjoyed the story too! Mr. K in particular fell in love with the story and demanded that I go back to the beginning and read the chapters he missed (which we did the next day). Meanwhile, Miss M grabbed the book and started reading herself. While I normally ask her to wait and not “read ahead”, for some reason I didn’t this time. I let her stay up to finish the book herself…and suddenly The Tune is in the Tree became a read-aloud for the boys and I!
Mr. K asked for it nearly every day until it was finished (we already had another book going as well, so that meant a lot of reading some days!). Mr. K quizzed me about what else this author had written, if there were any more books about the birds or Annie Jo, and “why not?!?!” when he found out that this book is a one and only. I think that is a true sign of love (coming from a six year old boy who often has a short attention span) to wish there were more books about the same characters. We all found ourselves paying more attention to the birds around us and imagining just a little bit about their “personalities” if they were able to talk to us like the birds talked to Annie Jo.
We loved this book so much and I am so sad that copies of it are so rare, leading to exorbitantly high prices. I would love to see this book reprinted! I think it would have a real audience among homeschoolers who are often eager for “living science” books (because, while it is a fantasy, it is packed full of detail that would appeal to anyone doing nature study or ornithology in particular), and I’m sure that if fans of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series knew how lovely this story is, they would want to add it to their collections. Maybe someday! It’s a gem that more people should have the opportunity to read.