Monday, January 1, 2018

Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate: filled with hope and humor (ages 8-11)

As we begin the new year, people ask each other what resolutions they've made. Sure, I'd like to exercise more. But really, I want to hold hope in my heart. That sense of hope, of deep-rooted optimism is essential to children's books. Katherine Applegate, winner of the Newbery Award for The One and Only Ivan, captures this essence of hope in her newest book Wishtree. A wise old oak tree, Red, narrates this heartfelt story of friendship and community.
by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by Charles Santoso
Feiwel and Friends / Macmillan, 2017
Amazon / your local library / Google Books preview
ages 8-11
* best new book *
Red has watched over this neighborhood for over 200 years, providing shade and comfort to animals and people. Right from the beginning, Applegate pulls readers into Red's story with the tree's
voice, humor and perspective. Our students have really responded to the fact that the tree tells this story. It's something they don't expect, and Red's humor wins them over.
"Trees have a rather complicated relationship with people, after all. One minute you’re hugging us. The next minute you’re turning us into tables and tongue depressors." (2)
For years now, Red has been the neighborhood wishtree. Every spring, people tie bits of paper, fabric or yarn to Red's branches. "Each offering represents a dream, a desire, a longing." (11) These wishes, these little bits of hope, make Red especially attuned to people's emotions.
"People tell trees all kinds of things. They know we’ll listen. It’s not like we have a choice. Besides, the more you listen, the more you learn. (13)"
Students at Rosa Parks School especially noticed how the animals depend on Red, and how the people do too. Yulissa and Lol-Be talked about how this reminded them of the Lorax: "I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues." Red must take a risk, not only speaking for the trees but also speaking for friendship. They could connect to the difficult situation of speaking up and taking a risk.

Applegate skillfully weaves three stories into this brief narrative. A new family moves into the neighborhood, and their daughter Samar notices how special Red is. When an unkind act threatens the balance of the community, Red is truly hurt. Furthermore, the owner of the land Red stands on threatens to chop the old tree down. Interwoven into these modern-day stories is the backstory of Maeve, a young Irish immigrant who brought the tradition of the wishing tree from Ireland to her new home in America.

When Red sees the pain and longing in a young girl's wish, he decides to take action. Students at John Muir School really liked how Red wasn't supposed to talk to people but then just blurts out all of a sudden. I also notice how well Applegate develops Red's character, helping readers connect with the tree's perspective.
"After Samar left, I felt restless. Restlessness is not a useful quality in a tree. We move in tiny bits, cell by cell, roots inching farther, buds nudged into the sunlight. Or we move because someone transplants us to a new location. When you're a red oak, there's not point in feeling fidgety." (81)
Applegate develops her theme of hope and community throughout the novel, but she does so gently and authentically. As Sharon McKellar noted in the blog Heavy Medal, Wishtree feels "subtle and strong," not didactic or heavy. Moreover, Applegate does this with utmost respect for the child reader, bringing the story directly to them in short, accessible chapters. She's trimmed away extra elements to just focus on this small story, this moment, these characters. And yet her language is funny, wise and lyrical in turns.

Some children have noticed that it is very short (211 pages) and reads quickly. One student said, "I liked the storyline but I rushed through it because it was below my reading level." I wonder if the key word there is "rushed." I recently reread Wishtree and the language, the humor and especially the themes stood out to me as distinguished.

Wishtree is one of the selections for Berkeley's Mock Newbery Book Club; I am excited to keep hearing what children throughout our schools are saying about this book. The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Macmillan. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2018 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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