2017 Gift Guide (No. 2): For the Change Agent
December 2, 2017 § 2 Comments
These are some of the questions posed quietly but provocatively in Wishtree (Ages 7-12), the latest chapter book by Katherine Applegate, award-winning author of The One and Only Ivan and Crenshaw (yes, you will cry in this new one, too). In today’s installment of my Gift Guide, I’m giving Wishtree its own due—deliberately not bundling it in my forthcoming post on middle-grade reads—because it lends itself so beautifully, so ardently, to sharing aloud. (Said differently: it’s not action-packed, so if your children are like mine, they may not pick it up on their own.) At just over 200 pages, with 51 short chapters, it’s not a long or difficult read. But its smaller-than-usual trim size gives it immediate intimacy, and the discussions it encourages—about what we want our community to look like and what we’re prepared to do about it—may just make change agents of us all.
Unconventionally, Wishtree is narrated by a tree. An enormous 216-year old red oak tree, who goes by the name Red. If you thought trees couldn’t talk, that’s because you haven’t been listening. (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.) But it’s also because trees, like animals, abide by a central governing rule to talk out of human earshot (a frog once broke this rule and talked to a mail carrier, and it did not go well).
But don’t be fooled: trees see everything.
With age and size on her side, Red is perfectly situated to reflect on the changing community around her, not only the litany of animals that reside in her branches and hollows, but also the row of (human dwelling) townhouses she shelters. She is a self-proclaimed busy body (a “buttinski,” as her best friend, the mischievous crow Bongo, teases her); a lover of terrible puns; and, above all, an optimist. She is also a wishtree, which means that once a year, on May Day, people of all ages come from near and far to affix to her branches pieces of paper and scraps of fabric bearing single wishes (everything from “flying skateboards” to “I wish I weren’t hungry sometimes”). Wishtrees, incidentally, are not fictional: a dear friend has one on her vineyard in Sonoma, and my children long to visit and tie on their wishes.
Red presides over a community long populated with immigrant American families. Francesca, the owner of the plot on which Red herself sits, is the great-great-granddaughter of an Irish immigrant, whose cures for the sick meant people would leave small thank-you gifts for her in the oak’s hollows. Francesca has since rented out her townhouse—most recently, to a Muslim-American family with a school-aged daughter named Samar. It is presumably to this family that the anonymous, chilling, hand-carved message, which appears one morning on Red’s trunk, is directed: LEAVE.
People are under the impression that trees don’t mind being carved into, especially if hearts are involved.
For the record, we mind.
I’d never seen the boy before. He was big, maybe a high schooler. It’s hard to know with people. With a tree, I can sense to the month, sometimes to the day, its age.
I couldn’t tell what he was carving, of course. But I could tell from the determined way he moved that it was meant to hurt.
As is often the case, this single purposeful deed sets into motion a chain of events much wider than its intended recipient. For starters, Francesca, the property owner, who admits to “lack[ing] a sentimental bone in my body,” decides time is long overdue to take down Red. The oak’s roots are destroying the walkways, the clean-up every year following Wishing Day is immense, and now the tree appears to be Ground Zero for xenophobia. But would chain sawing Red to the ground erase the intention behind that single loaded word? Certainly, it would destroy one of the most beautiful slices of nature for miles. It would obliterate a centuries-old tradition designed to nurture hope among neighbors. Say nothing of the skunk, opossum, and raccoon families who have long managed—against all odds—to co-exist peacefully under Red’s matronly protection.
In light of her pending execution (via Timber Terminators corporation), Red decides to overstep her place in the natural order of things and try herself to grant one of the wishes on her tree. She wants to meddle, but only “to make a difference, just a little difference, before I left this lovely world.”
In the short time they have known one another, Red has taken a special interest in the quiet new resident Samar, whose own wish hanging on the tree reads “I wish for a friend.” The family living next door to Samar has a boy in Samar’s class, and Red has often caught him sneaking shy glances at his new neighbor, despite his parents making it clear that the two families will never fraternize. With the help of her animal friends, Red stages a plan—comically misguided at times, but admittedly well-intentioned—to kindle a friendship between Samar and Stephen. Along the way, new questions arise: what is friendship? How does it begin? How much power can one friendship have?
And then, as her plan threatens to fail, Red steps up her game. She speaks up. She SPEAKS.
Let me say it like this. Before I even got my hands on this book, my daughter was listening to it read aloud by her teachers, a few chapters every day. I was enjoying hearing her updates at dinner (always the sign of a winning book when she can’t stop talking about it). At pick-up one day, she jumped into the car with dramatic flourish; apparently, she wasn’t going to wait until dinner. “Mom, the tree TALKED. She BROKE THE RULE. The Don’t Talk to People RULE!” Her response was part horror, part fascination.
(Up to this point, my daughter’s favorite part of the story had been Applegate’s delightfully imagined rules governing the Natural World. There’s the trees-don’t-talk-to-humans rule. But there are plentiful others, including how trees and animals name themselves. All opossums, for example, adopt the names of things that frighten them, like Hairy Spiders and Flashlight. Skunks are named after pleasant smells (“I am not sure if this is because they’re a bit defensive about their reputation, or if they just have a sly sense of humor,” says Red); while raccoons—my son found this especially funny—are all named You, because it’s easier for their mothers to remember.)
So, yes, Red breaks what she calls, “the biggie.” She comes right out and addresses (a very shocked) Stephen and Samar, as they sit beneath her one night, and she tells them the story of the very first wish tied onto her branches. It’s a wish that came true, that set into motion a diverse, loving community, now threatened by closed doors, narrow mindedness, and even hate.
Red immediately regrets her transgression and chides herself for overstepping. But, like the hateful deed that started it all, this one too has repercussions which stretch far beyond. Only this time, to drastically different ends.
You thought I was going to tell you what happens? Bah. In the words of one wise tree:
After two hundred and sixteen rings, I thought I’d seen it all.
Turns out you’re never too old to be surprised.
Reading this story, your children might chuckle their way through the various animals’ names. They might wonder at the banter between a tree and a crow. They might relate to Samar and Stephen and take another look at a new student or neighbor in their own neck of the woods. They might think up wishes of their own. But, with any luck, they’ll also be internalizing what happens when someone isn’t afraid to speak up—and when their voice inspires a whole lot of other people to do the same.
This is how we wish the communities of our dreams into reality.
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Book published by Macmillan. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!