Tree of Life discussion guide

Author: Rochelle Strauss

Illustrator: Margot Thompson

Publisher: A & C Black

Synopsis and reasons for selection

If every known species on Earth were a leaf on a tree, the tree would have almost 2 million leaves. Humans are just one leaf on this tree of life. Tree of Life is a dazzling, colourful and thoughtful introduction to the incredible variety of life on Earth, from the team behind the bestselling If The World Were a Village. It shows how living things are classified, sorted and interconnected, and how a problem with just one part of the tree of life can have devastating consequences. This book was the winner of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Henry Bergh Children's Book Awards 2004.

About the author and illustrator

Rochelle Strauss lives in Toronto and is an environmental education consultant. She has designed and developed education programs, as well as consulted on numerous environmental projects, including a biodiversity museum in Panama and a national park in Canada. Her books also include One Well: The Story of Water on Earth.

Margot Thompson is an illustrator and designer. Most of her illustration work has been for magazines, but she has also illustrated several books for children. She has a cat named Chico and her favourite book is Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy.

Discussion Points

Before Reading

  • Ask the children to look at the front cover of the book and use a post-it to record everything they see.
  • It would be interesting at this stage to ask the children which genre they feel this book belongs to? Is it fiction? Non-fiction? How can they tell?

During Reading

There are three types of question you can focus on during the exploration of this book. These are literal questions (‘looking’, e.g. When? What? Who?), inference questions (‘clue’, e.g How do you know that…?) and thinking questions ( Do you think that…?)

At all stages, invite the children to share their ideas and responses. Avoid asking too many leading or closed questions. The prompts and activities below are merely intended to be used as supplementary questions. Please select or adapt the questions which you think are most appropriate for the children you are working with. They will ask and answer many of their own questions if they are encouraged to look closely at the pictures and discuss their ideas.

Questions about the text type

Looking questions

  • What are these texts?
  • What is their purpose?

Clue questions

  • How do we know this is an information text?

Thinking questions

  • Why do you think the author and illustrator chose to set the text and diagrams out in this manner?
  • How is this information text different to others that you have read? How is it the same?
  • Did this information text make you want to find out more?

 Recognising features of an information text

  • Give the children an envelope which contains labels for the features of an information text: introduction, titles, sub-titles, words in bold or italics, pictures and captions, diagrams, table of contents and an index page .
  • Ask the children to use these labels to identify the relevant features on their favourite page.
  • The children could also use a large piece of tracing paper to draw around these features on their favourite page so they can understand the layout. 

Comparing texts

  • Ask the children to compare this book with a more traditional, information text.
  • Which features are similar?
  • Which features are different?
  • Which is the better text for giving the same information? Why do you think this?
  • Which would you prefer reading for enjoyment?
  • You could use a double bubble map to record the similarities and differences differences.

Contents Page

  • How many pages long is the chapter on Fungi?
  • Which page would you use to find out about:
    • Plants
    • Fish
    • Vertebrates
    • Amphibians?
  • On which pages do you think I will find out information on giraffes?
  • When would you use a Contents Page?

What do you already know?

  • Before beginning the book, ask the children to record everything they already know about the animals and plants mentioned on the contents page, using a circle map
  • Write down everything you think you know in a circle.
  • Write where you learned this information in the rectangle.
  • Share your ideas with your partner and add any new ideas to your map.


The Tree of Life

  • How does the author try to engage the audience in the first sentence?
  • What is biodiversity?
  • What does each branch on The Tree of Life represent?
  • Why is the Tree of Life a good metaphor to use?
  • Use the layout on page 5 to create your own family tree.

The Five Branches

  • Why are some of the words on page 6 in bold?
  • To which kingdom do bacteria belong?
  • How does the picture on page 7 help the reader?


Use the information on these pages to complete this table:



Which were the first bacteria?



Why do some plants need bacteria?



How do bacteria help humans?




  • Bacteria are tiny. Highlight two examples from the text that support this.
  • Investigate and research the role of bacteria in helping humans. You could find out about helpful microorganisms such as yeast, how we make yoghurt or the role of bacteria in breaking down leaves.


  • Why are Decomposers like ‘recyclers’?
  • To which species of fungi do mushrooms belong?
  • Write out a set of instructions for making bread.
  • Take a walk outside and see if you can find any examples of fungi and carefully sketch them.


  • What is special about the Pacific giant kelp?
  • Why are some words on this page written in brackets?
  • Using the information on this page, draw and label a diagram to show the process of photosynthesis.


  • What is a habitat?
  • Why do you think plants are special?
  • How is the bee orchid adapted to its environment?
  • Find and higlight a phrase that shows flowers and plants can be found anywhere.


  • Was there any information on this page that surprised or interested you? Share it with a partner.
  • What does the word ‘diverse’ mean?
  • How do squirrels and chipmunks help spread seeds?
  • Describe the ‘special relationship’ between ants and acacia.
  • Look at some of the pictures of the stony coral, tambaqui and Jamaican leaf-nosed bat. Can you find out any other interesting pieces of information about them?


Use the information on these pages to find questions and answers. Now write 2 questions and answers of your own.



How small can invertebrates be?





Queen Alexandra birdwing butterfly



The coconut crab


  • Why are insects the most familiar of invertebrates?
  • Name three invertebrates.
  • What is the difference between the number of mandibulates and the number of echinoderms?
  • Draw a bar graph to show the number of each invertebrate species.


  • Find a phrase that shows strawberry poison dart frogs are dangerous.
  • Which main feature do all vertebrates have?
  • Do all reptiles lay eggs?
  • Use a double bubble map to explore how vertebrates and invertebrates how similar and different. Use the information from page 17 to also help you.


  • Explain the word ‘aquatic’ to a partner.
  • What is the function of the subheadings on page 23?
  • Complete this table using the information in this section.

Type of fish

What makes it special?

Bony fish



Cartilaginous fish



Jawless fish





  • Which is your favourite picture on these pages? Why?
  • Why do you think the pictures overlap?
  • How far does the Artic fern travel when migrating?
  • How can we find out about what a bird eats?
  • Why are parrots an endangered species? Give two reasons.
  • To which category of bird do falcons belong to?


  • How do the scales of reptiles help stop them from drying out?
  • Why are turtles different to most reptiles?
  • Why do reptiles lay out in the sun?
  • Find a phrase that shows tuataras are very old.
  • Look at the section that begins, ‘Madagascar is home to almost half of the world’s chameleons…’ Can you create a new sub-title for this section of information?
  • Look at the artwork of Romero Britto. Can you paint a chameleon in the same style?


  • What is unique about the platypus?
  • Can you create a food chain or food web using some of the animals mentioned on these pages?
  • How much does a blue whale weigh?
  • Find a phrase that shows the bumblebee bat does not weigh much.
  • How are the wombat’s young protected?
  • Use a metre stick to measure the height of an adult and baby giraffe. How tall are you? How much taller is the average adult giraffe?


  • Why do humans have the greatest impact on the Tree of Life?
  • Why has the author repeated the phrase ‘We are one of the…’ at the beginning of each sentence?

Changes to the Tree of Life

  • How do humans impact negatively on the Tree of Life?
  • Find out about one of the species mentioned in this section that is at risk of extinction.
  • Explore the work carried out by World Animal Protection by looking at this website:
  • How does the author persuade you to look after the planet?
  • Create a food chain using some of the animals mentioned on these pages. What happens if you remove one animal?

Becoming guardians on the Tree of Life

  • How does the author feel about our treatment of the planet? Find evidence to support your view.
  • What is the purpose of this book?
  • What more can we do to look after our planet?
  • Which chapter was your favourite and why?
  • Can you create a poster to encourage children to look after the local area you live in?

Further learning activities

  • Choose and animal or plant mentioned in this book and create your own report on it. Where does it live? What does it look like? What does it eat? How is it adapted to its environment?
  • Involve your school or community in cleaning up your school field, playground, park or a local area.
  • Create a small garden in your school and try growing some of your own plants and vegetables.
  • Hold a Walk to School Week or encourage everyone in your school to recycle more. Appoint monitors to check that whiteboards, lights, computers and fans have been switched off during lunch and at the end of the day.

Further reading…

Why not explore our ‘Animals’, ‘Bugs, Insects and Minibeasts’ and ‘Go Green!’ book collections?

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