Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 01 Sep 2020

The Girl Who Became A Tree by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Kate Milner

In Greek mythology, Daphne was a water nymph with whom the God Apollo became infatuated. In an attempt to escape his unwanted attentions, Daphne pleaded to the river spirits to save her and they obliged, turning her into a laurel tree and thus thwarting Apollo’s grasp. Undimmed in his admiration for Daphne, Apollo adopted the laurel as his emblem and the athletic  Pythian Games held every four years in the God’s honour awarded laurel wreaths to adorn the heads of the victors.

And the myth of Daphne is a good starting point for Joseph Coelho’s new ‘story told in poems’ about a contemporary Daphne, so desperately plunged into grief by the death of her woodsman father that she is in danger of losing herself to the monstrous gloom  she is creating for herself. In fact Coelho weaves the two stories together, entwining them around each other in a way that helps to create a sense of something slightly unreal but which in fact just serves to sharpen the edge of reality.

Our modern Daphne finds herself withdrawing from the world, dropping her friends and spending more and more time in her local library and on the screen of her smartphone. When the unthinkable happens and her phone disappears from her bag while she is in the library, the boundary line between reality and fantasy, sanity and madness, despair and hope becomes blurred. Like Alice before her she follows a trail of clues into an underworld - in pursuit of her phone and ultimately to her fateful meeting with the monster in the dark wood of her own depression and misery.

Her journey back to the surface and to the light will require her to reconnect – in every way.

Joseph Coelho’s poems are the powerful and often emotional engine that drives all of this. He plays with different poetic forms - from free verse right through to much more classic formal structures – and he isn’t afraid to have some fun doing it. Some of the poems depend on their shape on the page, some contain their own little puzzles and some can coax a tear to your eye.

I think it’s quite a brave decision to go for a verse novel aimed at those aged around 12 and above because you really have to be confident you can retain the good will of the readers who may be a bit daunted by the idea of 170 pages of poetry. Thrillingly, his confidence is well placed because he pulls this off with real brio.

Of course, it also helps to have a top class illustrator on your side and Coelho has the brilliant Kate Milner in his corner. Her black and white illustrations are scattered throughout the book and they fit perfectly with the form and atmosphere of the book.

A recent review of the book on The Literacy Tree website captures the power of this book perfectly and I can’t do better than to line up behind their well chosen words:

“The soaring words and phrases interspersed with searing, cutting references to the pain experienced in times of grief is achingly beautiful. Raw in places yet written with such tenderness, this is perfect for a year 6 class toward the end of the year and for older children, especially those facing loss.”

Published by Otter-Barry books, you will be able to either buy or order this from you local independent book shop. If that’s not possible, you can get it directly from them by going to


Terry Potter

September 2020