“Wishtree” by Katherine Applegate is just what one might expect from a Newbery medal winning author. It’s thoughtful, it’s poignant, and it’s timely. This is a story that will get middle school readers talking and thinking — and that’s what good literature is supposed to do.
In this story, Red, the main character, is a 216-year-old oak tree. For many generations, he has been the “wishtree” that people in the neighborhood pin their wishes on. Come May 1st every year, his branches are covered in rags, notes, socks, and even a random pair of underwear, all bearing the wishes of those who placed them there. Some wishes are silly while others are profound.
In fact, the first wish placed on the tree, generations ago, was the wish from a lonely young woman from Ireland, Maeve, to have someone she could love with all her heart. The next day, an infant was left in the hollow of the tree and that baby became the love of Maeve’s life.
Over a hundred years later, Maeve’s descendant Francesca owns the two houses that share the stately oak tree. Francesca lives across the street and rents out the houses, one blue and one green. When Samar and her family move into the blue house, the neighbors aren’t happy. Someone carves the word “LEAVE” on Red’s trunk.
Stephen, the boy Samar’s age who lives in the house next door doesn’t look at her or walk to school with her. Samar is lonely, and at night she visits with Red and sits under his branches. Little by little, all the animal families who live in Red’s branches come to trust her and sit with her. Bongo, the talkative crow who is Red’s best friend, also keeps her company. Finally, Samar offers her own wish. She wishes for a friend. And Red becomes determined to grant that wish.
How does a tree grant a wish? With lots of help from his friends and a bit of luck. The pace of the story picks up after Samar makes her wish, and that’s when things get tricky. Applegate brings out her powerful poetic language when describing the events leading up to the wish and the desecration of the tree.
She describes how the neighborhood was a welcoming place for a huge diversity of people. “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.”
Different cultures were all colorful parts of the neighborhood, making it “wild and tangled and colorful. Like the best kind of garden.” But something about Samar’s family broke this welcoming spirit. When they moved in, things were different. The neighbors didn’t welcome them, someone threw raw eggs at their house, some shouted “Muslims, get out!”
“Our neighborhood had welcomed many families from faraway. What was different this time? The headscarf Samar’s mother wore? Or was it something else?”
When a 216-year-old tree sets out to make a wish come true, friends help. And Red’s friends do help. Will Red be able to grant Samar’s wish and get her a friend? Will Red be able to save his own life when Francesca is tired of his roots causing plumbing problems?
The story is not just about prejudice; it’s also about life and death, friendship, and nature, and, of course, there’s a bit of magic thrown in. This book is really a perfect read aloud. The reader, be it teacher, parent or other person should take the time to talk about the book as it’s read and discuss the parts that one might see in real life and the parts that are pure fantasy. It’s a teacher’s dream in terms of looking for the author’s message — there are many possibilities, and few of them would be incorrect.
Thank you, Katherine Applegate, for another lovely and touching story.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Feiwel and Friends, the publisher, for review purposes.