‘Willodeen’ by Katherine Applegate; because Nature knows more than we do

Willodeen by Katherine Applegate

Award-winning author Katherine Applegate’s last series, “Endling,” was about the near-extinction of a species. In her newest magical novel, “Willodeen,” she presents an alternative world with strange, exotic creatures. As in our own world, some creatures in this magical one are cute, and others are not only ugly; they smell atrocious. They are called screechers because of the sound they make at night. Main character and first person narrator Willodeen and her father had enjoyed watching them — from a distance — because if you get too close to them, you smell, too. They both loved creatures, and the yard of their cottage was filled with domestic animals and wild ones, like the “ancient river otter who could no longer swim.” Together, Willodeen and her father observed nature and enjoyed watching animals, both ugly and beautiful, until one of the ever-increasing fire events destroyed Willodeen’s house and killed everyone in her family but her.

Now she lives with neighbors, a strange pair of women, Birdie and Mae, who care for Willodeen and for the hummingbear named Duuzuu that escaped the fire as well, but whose wings were damaged so that he can’t return to the wild. Duuzuu and Willodeen wander the woods, with Willodeen making notes about nature in her journal. Willodeen is painfully shy and has no friends. She explains that she feels awkward around others and never knows just when to laugh at a joke. People confuse her, but animals don’t. The descriptions of hummingbears are magical. They have round ears and fur like dandelion fuzz, shiny wings on their back and big eyes, a black shiny tail and a long sticky tongue to slurp insects.

In Willodeen’s village, their claim to fame is that every year, the hummingbears have migrated to the shores of their town. They make beautiful, fantastical nests of bubbles that absorb sunlight during the day and glow all night. They only nest among the leaves of the blue willow tree, and Applegate’s description of them staying in this protected valley reminds me of the monarch butterfly, making the incredible journey of thousands of miles to the oyamel forests of Mexico, where they overwinter while sheltered in the boughs of those trees. She writes, “They migrated down from the north in huge flocks, confusing the skies and crowding the clouds before landing on the blue willows in our valley. There they stayed until spring, when they flew back to their other home.”

But like the plight of the real-life monarch, the hummingbears are arriving in fewer and fewer numbers. This is concerning to the townspeople, as they rely on the yearly faire and the resultant tourist dollars to survive. Willodeen makes that clear, “But the hummingbears and the Autumn Faire; that’s what had always kept us afloat through the lean months.” And at the same time there were fewer hummingbears, the screechers were disappearing. Willodeen thinks she’s one of the only people who have noticed that. “And I was quite sure I was the only one who cared.”

Willodeen documents it all. Mae and Birdie give her a notebook, a pen and ink, and pencils. She walks and she takes notes. She draws everything she sees and she counts. Willodeen says, “I’ve always had a gift for it. I like knowing the how many of things.” And thus WIllodeen becomes the Jane Goodall of her story, getting to know the screechers as individuals and counting them. The reason the screechers are disappearing is obvious: the village has put a bounty on them. Willodeen is in the woods when she spies what she thinks might be the last one, an old male she names Sir Zurt. But as she is watching the creature peacefully sleep, hunters approach and shoot him with an arrow. Willodeen tries to stop them, but the injured screecher runs away.

It’s at this point in the story that Willodeen runs into Connor as he is gathering materials for his puzzlers. Connor insists on helping Willodeen look for Sir Gurt to see if he’s just injured and in need of help. But they find him, and tragically, it’s too late. The last screecher is gone.

Now is when the real magic begins. It’s Willodeen’s birthday, and her new friend Connor gives her one of his “puzzlers,” as he calls them. It’s a beautiful creature made from wisps of reed and mud and other ingredients found in nature that he uses to create hummingbears that he sells during the yearly faire. But for Willodeen, he creates one in the form of a screecher and it’s exquisite. When Willodeen goes to blow out the candle of her birthday cake and is told to make a wish, she thinks of the screechers and cries. “Angry tears,” Birdie calls them and tells her that they have magic in them. Mae agrees and says, “There’s great power in tears born of anger.”

Willodeen’s anger is so motivating that when she is encouraged to go with Connor to the village meeting, and the subject of screechers arises, she speaks up. She explains that the world is changing rapidly, and nature is complicated. And that while she doesn’t know why the hummingbears are gone, the screechers are as much a part of nature as the hummingbears are. “I’m just saying let’s not lose things before we get the chance to understand them. Screechers included.” The townspeople laugh at her.

Willodeen goes to the village square, sits by the lone blue willow tree, takes out her screecher puzzler, and cries. Her tears chip one of the little screecher’s ears. She puts the toy in her coat pocket, and puts the coat on one of the carousel’s figures. But when she returns for her coat, the screecher puzzler has disappeared, and a real screecher baby appears, with a familiar dent in its ear. Willodeen and Connor don’t quite know what to make of it, they don’t know how to care for it, and they don’t know what to feed it. But it turns out that observation and careful annotation is what scientists do, and that’s what Willodeen has done. Magic and careful observation (science) might just have the potential to begin the process to heal the earth.

Make no mistake. The world in “Willodeen” might be a magical alternate world, but it faces many of the same challenges we face in our own. Uncontrollable fires, droughts, fevers, mudslides; it seems that nature is on the warpath, and the people don’t know why or what to do. Willodeen’s father had said, “Nature knows more than we do. And she probably always will.” Why is that so difficult for both the people in this story and the people in our real world to understand?

Alternating with Willodeen’s first person narrative is a third person narration that, at first, is mysterious. We don’t know who the little creature is or why her story is important. But throughout the novel, we hear from her, the smaller, darker font making it clear that this is a different point of view. Eventually, we realize that it’s Quinby, the magical screecher, whom we are reading about. At the end, we find Quinby back in WIllodeen’s town, happily in the presence of the two “other” beings who she knows cared for her, and while she has many questions, she is sure of one thing. True to Applegate’s style of writing, which is to include phrases that resonate and shine like gold nuggets, she leaves us with this, Quinby’s certainty: “She has just a moment on this old, wise earth, this earth that will always be wiser than its inhabitants. And she is lucky indeed to be a part of its magic.”

Reading this novel aloud with students would be a joy — getting to stop when there are choice phrases that are truths that should be discussed (like “nature knows best”), and talking about the different points of view and the different feelings of the characters about beautiful animals versus “ugly” ones. In Willodeen’s eyes, and I daresay in Applegate’s eyes, there are no ugly or bad creatures. Only misunderstood ones. (See “The NOT Bad Animals” book by Sophie Corrigan to reinforce this idea.) What importance do animals that some might consider “ugly” or “yucky” (think skunks or vultures or porcupines) have in nature?

I’d love to have students think about animals that we have driven to extinction or almost-extinction because we hated them or used them for profit or just didn’t care enough to protect their habitat. We’ve heard about dodos, passenger pigeons, Northern white rhinoceros and Western black rhinoceros, the baiji dolphin, and Pyrenean ibex, some extinct in just the past few years because of pollution, hunting, or other man-made causes.

The New York Times just published a heartbreaking list of new extinctions. The article states, “Hawaii was once home to more than 50 species of forest birds known as honeycreepers, some of them brightly colored with long, curved beaks used to drink nectar from flowers. Taking into account the proposed extinctions in this batch, only 17 species are left.” Freshwater mussels, many species that cleaned and filtered water in our rivers, are now extinct. The ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest in the US, is now officially extinct. A biologist is quoted as saying, “I don’t think we fully understand what we lost.” It could be a quote from Willodeen, but it isn’t. Applegate knew this sad reality before he said it, before the New York Times reported it. With Willodeen and her Endling series, she’s warning us, educating us, trying to help kids understand what too many adults seem to ignore. Nature is connected in ways we can’t even conceive. Protect it. Nurture it. Guard it. Applegate’s plea will resonate with educators, librarians, parents, and children — who often understand and are closer to nature than we adults are.

Please note: This review is based on the bound manuscript provided by the publisher, Feiwel & Friends, for review purposes.