“It’s hard to talk to trees.” With that sentence, wishtree by Katherine Applegate begins a children’s story that is sweet in its simplicity, stark in its reality, and spare in its prose. At the center of the story, Red, a northern red oak, one of the most common trees in America, tells an uncommon tale. Posted in the center of a small, older neighborhood, Red stands sentinel amidst other trees less old and wise. “When you stand still for over two centuries while the world whirls past, things happen,” Red explains, before leading the reader on a journey where past and present intertwine, where beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and where wishes just might come true.
From the beginning of the story, from the very front cover of the book, in fact, traditional conventions are left behind. Neither the title nor the author’s name are capitalized in the front matter, and the chapters are extremely short. This intentional change of pace leaves the reader a bit bewildered from the start, which only intensifies as the story begins in the voice of … a tree. With the personification of an inanimate object as the voice of the narrator, the reader is prepared to witness magic. For, after all, trees don’t talk in real life. Or do they? However, as the story progresses, the stark realities of life juxtaposed with the quirky nature world brings to mind the rich inner world of a child. One in which a little girl can both be friends with animals (and trees) that talk while ostracized by her own kind.
The animal world is conveyed with a charm and whimsy that make the story worthwhile even if only as a study of nature. Proper terminology is used, such as referencing the binomial nomenclature for the common red oak (Quercas rubra) and groups of animals (a murder of crows, a charm of hummingbirds, etc.). While these scientific facts are interspersed throughout the narrative, they are delightfully woven with a light hand, refraining from feeling burdensome or awkward. In addition, the author provides a glimpse of the delicate balance of an ecosystem that lives as close as one’s front yard, as multiple species make Red’s branches their home. As the reader meets inquisitive raccoons and fearful opossums, cawing crows and confident owls, he is given a small, and yes, magical, glimpse into the inner workings of nature.
However, even this is not without its struggle. “Nature is not always pretty or fair or kind,” Red laments. Animals must fight to maintain their space in the world; hunger, disease, and death are always looming possiblilities. Likewise, a young girl, despite her kind and sweet nature, can be singled out, hated, or even threatened because of her cultural heritage, the color of her skin, or the country where she was born. The girl, Samar, and her family have just arrived in the neighborhood, upsetting some who would rather not have them there. As she struggles to fit in with neighbors and schoolmates, Red and the other furry and feathered inhabitants of the neighborhood become Samar’s friends and refuge. Yet even they are struggling with the looming specter of loss. For the landowner, tired of cleaning up the mess every year from the Wish Day tradition that ends up decorating Red’s trunk and branches, has decided to cut Red down. A simple decision, absolutely, but one that could have far-reaching consequences to the ecosystem as well as the homes nestled underneath Red’s sprawling canopy. Red, saddened at the news, is still willing to focus all energies on finding Samar a friend, as well as making sure that the animal friends living in and nearby will have suitable homes when he is gone.
wishtree is suitable for middle grade readers. Charming illustrations by Charles Santoso add a delightful element as the reader is treated to sweet images of the many animals populating its pages. The lessons presented are both timeless and timely. Through Red’s narration, he portrays first how to “stand tall and reach deep” when bad things happen, and second, what a gift it is to “love who you are.” At its core, this story is one about acceptance, both of others who are different, and of the inevitable changes of life. It is a story about hope, in one another as well as for a peaceful future. It is a story about friendship and love, sadness and joy. And it is a story in which a wish just might come true.