The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness by Matt Ottley
This book was part of the Notable list for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Awards – Picture Book of the Year.
The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness is an allegorical story of a boy’s experience of psychosis, with mental illness represented as a fantastical tree whose flowers are ecstasy and whose fruit is unbearable sadness. Stunning drawings and paintings lead the reader through the boy’s early discovery of his strangeness, his surrender to the disease (an all-consuming tree), the ensuing psychotic journey, and eventual self-acceptance. The recording of a full orchestral score composed by the author-illustrator will accompany the book, and an international tour is planned.
I’ve always loved Matt Ottley’s work, especially on picture books. I have a print from one of his books – Incredible Freedom Machines (written by Kirli Saunders).
I’ve always seen something hopeful in all his illustrations, but I’ve never known much about him as a person. This book is the first time I’ve really thought about what motivates that feeling of hopefulness in his work and it’s the tree of ecstasy and unbearable sadness. No matter the depth of issue that his books deal with there is something there that is beautiful and captivating.
This book isn’t just a book, it’s classified as a multi-modal project meaning it is writing, illustration and music. Matt Ottley has composed a 50-minute work for orchestra, choir, and a solo tenor that is aimed to be heard in conjunction with the book. It is available as a CD in the back of the book or available for download from his website.
As I was reading this book, with no prior knowledge of his subject just deciding to read it because it was notable for this year’s Children’s Book Council of Australia’s book awards (though whenever I see the name Matt Ottley, I read the book for his illustrations) I had no idea of the background. This was a slow awakening into the world of the book and allowed me to slowly journey through and unravel the meanings for myself. The background isn’t hidden; it’s inside the front cover and it’s not hard to work out that the book deals with mental health but as I read it and marvelled at the illustrations I went on a journey with the character in the book. I saw myself in moments that have been very difficult and moments that have been joyous. I have not started a war but guns and death aside sometimes it feels like you’ve started a war in your life when things have come to light, or you have taken certain actions. I felt I was the main character even though our experiences are vastly different, and I feel that for any person out there who is aware of their own mental health and the challenges we all face at different times they will see themselves in the main character as well.
I do not have enough words to express how much I love Matt Ottley’s artwork and whether it is moment where the boy is becoming a tree or a flying cow or the surreal body of the Queen, I could walk through a gallery filled with just this book and spend hours wandering the rooms basking in the story that would unfold.
There are moments in the book when you smile, or things bring you joy and moments when you feel second-hand sadness for the character.
I feel like this is a book that I need to sit with for a while, but I loved it from the moment I read it. I would recommend it to high school teachers and upper primary school teachers as a great way to start talking and to delve deeply into how art can be an interwoven braid of different avenues to get the message out into the world.
Please remember that your mental health is important and there are always people you can reach out to if you need to talk (or text).
The Metal Health Commission has a website of information and the below services are always available.
Some other Matt Ottley books: