Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Wednesday, August 2, 2017: Maximum Shelf: Wishtree

Feiwel & Friends: Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Feiwel & Friends: Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Feiwel & Friends: Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Feiwel & Friends: Wishtree by Katherine Applegate


by Katherine Applegate

Red is a gregarious, 216-ring-old northern red oak. "Maybe we've met? Oak tree near the elementary school? Big, but not too? Sweet shade in the summer, fine color in the fall?" Although most trees are "not big on chitchat," Red has a story to tell--in addition to his given name, Red is also known as a "wishtree." The original wishtree story is rooted in 1848, when a newly emigrated Irish girl introduced to Red her homeland's custom of tying a wish on a tree. But the "branches" of the story take place in present-day America. Every year, on May first, people come from all over the town to tie scraps of fabric and paper with their hopes and longings to Red's branches: "I wish my gerbil could talk." "I wish for a world without war." "I wish my dad could get better."

Generations of families have lived in the two little houses beneath Red's boughs. "Babies and teenagers, grandparents and great-grandparents. They spoke Chinese and Spanish, Yoruba and English and French Creole. They ate tamales and pani puri, dim sum and fufu and grilled cheese sandwiches.... That's our neighborhood: wild and tangled and colorful." But when a 10-year-old girl named Samar and her Muslim family move in, something is different. People are not as warm and welcoming as they've been with other families from "faraway." Someone throws raw eggs at the house, and children taunt Samar as she walks down the street. But it's not until a teenager carves the word "LEAVE" in Red's trunk that the community--including Red and his animal residents--is stirred to action.

Unfortunately, one of the ripple effects of the commotion is that Francesca, the owner of the land where Red is rooted, starts thinking about cutting him down: "[That tree has] been nothing but trouble for as long as I can remember.... Wishtree or not, this oak is destroying the walkways. Messing with the plumbing, too. Roots go on forever."

As much as he doesn't want to be chopped down, Red is more worried about the animals he shelters and about Samar if he is indeed going to be cut down. He and his best buddy, a crow named Bongo, begin to scheme about helping Samar make a connection to the community, with poignant results.

In Wishtree, Katherine Applegate, beloved author of Newbery-winning The One and Only Ivan (as well as a version for younger kids, Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla), Crenshaw and the Animorphs series, presents an unusual protagonist in children's literature. Red is funny and wise, in spite of Bongo's eye-rolling entreaties for him to cut the punnish "tree humor" and the "Wise Old Tree routine" when Red gets too platitudinous with his philosophizing. His life has been good, no question about it. Still, he says, "I wanted to make a difference, just a little difference, before I left this lovely world." Having such brutal evidence of the hate that exists in their own town carved into his bark spurs Red on. But, as he says, "What could I possibly do? I had limbs, but they could merely sway. I had a trunk, but it was rooted to the earth. I had a voice, but it could not be used." Even so, Red and Bongo manage to set lasting change in motion through the small steps they can make, and ultimately it's the children--animal and human--that make the wishes of many come true.

The life of a tree is beautifully portrayed throughout Wishtree: "Leaves have cooled picnickers and proposers. Beneath my boughs vows have been made, hearts mended. Nappers have napped; dreamers have dreamed. I've watched ascents attempted, listened to stories spun." It hasn't all been picnics and sweet dreams, though. Red has "aches and pains, like everyone. Last year I had a mite infestation that drove me nuts. Leaf blister, sooty mold, oak wilt, leaf scorch: Been there, done that."

Every one of Applegate's characters is remarkably developed and authentic. Dialogue, especially between Red and Bongo, is as playful and witty and comfortable as one would expect from best friends. On Red's 216th birthday, the two chat:

"Another sproutday," I said. "I still feel like a sapling."
"You don't look a day over a hundred and fifty," Bongo replied. "Best-looking tree on the block."
"I'm really"--I paused for comic effect--"getting up there."
Bongo, who was perched on my lowest branch, sighed. A crow sigh is unmistakable, like a groan from a tiny, cranky old man.
"Tree humor," I explained, just in case Bongo had missed it, although of course she hadn't. Bongo misses nothing. "Because, you know, I'm so tall."
"Really, Red?" Bongo stretched, admiring her lustrous blue-black wings. "That's the best you got for me this morning?"

Readers will adore Red and his friends, laughing out loud at Bongo's pleas to make "deposits" on the heads of certain deserving individuals and at the naming conventions of animals (skunks name themselves after pleasant scents, like FreshBakedBread; barn owls have "sensible, no-fuss names," like Harold; "notoriously forgetful" raccoon mothers skip the traditional monikers, instead going with names like You, You, You and You). The lasting message of Wishtree, though, is one of acceptance. After all, as Red says, "Making others feel safe is a fine way to spend your days." --Emilie Coulter

Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, $16.99, hardcover, 224p., ages 10-14, 9781250043221, September 26, 2017

Feiwel & Friends: Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Katherine Applegate Branches Out

Katherine Applegate is mistress of many genres, having written about a mall-dwelling gorilla in the Newbery-winning The One and Only Ivan; kids who can transform into superhero animals in the Animorphs series; a giant imaginary cat in Crenshaw; not to mention a YA science fiction thriller (Eve and Adam) and Harlequin romances. In Wishtree, she digs deep into her imagination once again, creating a story about an ancient, wise, funny tree who reaches beyond his roots and crown to give back to the world that gave him life.

There's a certain kind of kid for whom a talking tree would be a dream come true. Were you one of those?

Well, my first choice would have been a talking dog, but the more I read about trees, the more I wish I could have a long heart-to-heart chat with one. (Highly recommended: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben--you'll never look at a tree the same way again.)

When I was growing up in Michigan, we had this lovely birch tree in our front yard that was a great companion. (Oh, how I longed to put a treehouse there, but it wasn't up to the challenge.) To this day, I can't look at a birch without a hint of nostalgia.

Red is a 216-"ring"-old northern red oak with an incredibly strong, appealing personality. Did you know, going into Wishtree, what his personality would be?

I'm so glad to hear that you liked Red. It's truly fun to watch a character evolve as you write. Red is old enough to have seen a great deal, both good and bad, and he has a tendency to offer "wise old tree" advice, which drives his animal friends crazy.

I liked creating a character who was quite comfortable in his own skin (bark?), one who's capable of saying, "It is a great gift indeed to love who you are." Still, Red wonders if he's done enough for the world, and he wants to do more. That's a good place for anyone to be.

What moved you to write about a Muslim family who were told to "leave" their community?

I wrote Wishtree during the election, in a state of stunned disbelief at how vitriolic and frightening the political season had become. I wanted to talk about hate crimes in an accessible way, one that even the youngest reader could understand. I knew there wouldn't be any simple answers. But I wanted to at least start a conversation where kids asked themselves, "Why are those people being treated unkindly? Are they really so different from me?"

What are the motivations and inspirations for your books?

Kids always ask where ideas come from, and I always answer the same way. You just need two words: "What if?" I never have a shortage of ideas--most writers will tell you the same thing. The hard part is deciding which one will keep you sitting at your desk day after day, when things get tough. For me, that always comes down to a visceral reaction, something that truly energizes me.

Often the news plays a role. With The One and Only Ivan, it was a story about the real Ivan's uncertain future as he languished in a shopping mall in Tacoma. With Wishtree, it was the spate of stories about anti-Muslim hate crimes. In fact, I was tweaking the final manuscript of Wishtree when I came across this ugly headline in the Washington Post: " 'You can all go home now': Police Investigate Hate-filled Note Targeting Iowa Muslim Family."

Life imitating art imitating life.

Talking animals play a large part in many of your books, including Wishtree. Do you find that young readers sometimes relate better to animals than to human protagonists? Are animals better at putting forth certain messages?

I'm not sure if it's the slight remove from the complicated world of humans that makes it easier for kids to relate to animal stories, or if it's just that animals are so darn cool. Maybe a little of both.

It helps that kids feel a tenderness and protectiveness toward animals. Both children and animals are vulnerable to the whims of adult humans, after all, and both have unique perspectives on the world.

The humor in Wishtree is wonderful--sometimes sophisticated, sometimes juvenile (as when Bongo begs to make "deposits" on the heads of certain deserving individuals). How important do you think it is for children's books to appeal to adult readers, too?

It's great when that happens. (I speak for parents everywhere who've been forced to reread the same book 4,568 times.)

But in the end, if a kid loves a book, that's all that matters, as far as I'm concerned.

You've written an incredibly wide range of books besides Wishtree. Do you have a favorite genre?

It feels like such a luxury to be able to experiment! Perhaps that comes from writing too many series books early in my career.

I dearly love writing for middle graders. They're the perfect audience: inquisitive, idealistic, imaginative. And the length is right for me. I'm more "chamber music" than "symphony" when it comes to novels. I hate putting those first words down on paper, but I love chopping and pruning (two of Red's least favorite words.) Any genre will do!

Are you a tree climber?

I'm barely a stair climber.

What have you wished for?

When Macmillan sent out advance reader's copies of Wishtree, they created a beautiful box covered with wishes from the staff. My wish was for "a world full of welcomers." (The dedication to Wishtree reads "for newcomers and for welcomers.")

However, I wouldn't argue if someone sent me a full-time chef/masseur.

What's next for you?

I'm just starting a new middle-grade novel. I love this part of the writing process. Anything seems possible, and it's too soon to know all the ways you'll go wrong. 

Ask me again in a month when I'm throwing my keyboard against the wall in frustration. Repeatedly.

Anything else you'd like to share with the readers of Shelf Awareness?

Just a big and heartfelt thanks for loving books the way they do. I'm a late-blooming reader, which makes every new book I fall in love with especially sweet. --Emilie Coulter

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