On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, the worst natural disaster on record to devastate the island. One of the hurricane’s casualties was the ancient banyan tree by the Old San Juan Gate, the main entrance into the historic city of Old San Juan.
In this deeply moving picture book based on true events, Puerto Rican author Anna Orenstein-Cardona employs the literary technique of personification to bring to life for young children the experience and plight of the banyan tree as it was assaulted by the hurricane, brought to near annihilation, and then restored with the help of a loving community.
Orenstein-Cardona relates that for over 100 years, the banyan tree “had kept a watchful eye at the San Juan Gate as the world transformed around him.” Horse-drawn carriages were replaced by electric scooters, steamboats made way for cruise ships, and seafarers trading goods were replaced by tourists taking selfies. But in every time period, the banyan provided shelter, shade, and a gathering place.
However, all that changes when “the tree awoke to find that the clear blue skies and the mango-colored sun had disappeared.” As the wise tree watches people board up windows and rush to purchase supplies, he understands that a hurricane is approaching. But the confident tree is sure he can withstand this storm as he has many other tempests.
However, the tree is wrong! After hours of buffeting winds, the tree is shocked to realize that his branches have been torn away and he has tumbled into the sea. When all seems lost, a young girl stands sorrowfully by the tree, gently caressing its roots that still rest on land. When she asks the tree if he is still alive, he says he is, but he is old and tired. The girl and the community will not let the tree go so easily. With heavy machinery, the tree is set upright, and, with daily devotion, the community nurtures the tree back to health. As the tree flourishes, “he sparked a wave of HOPE in the hearts of the people,” giving them the courage and will to work together to rebuild their lives.
Artist Juan Manuel Moreno’s poignant, spirited illustrations capture the island’s verdant landscape prior to the storm, the hurricane’s ferocity and destruction, the banyan’s bleak prognosis afterward, and the courage and creativity of the community as they save the banyan and reconstruct their community. The Tree of Hope is a story worth celebrating again and again.