Heavy Medal Finalist: Wishtree
In Sharon’s earlier post on WISHTREE she writes: “WISHTREE whispers its message of tolerance and hope.” That sentence really captures the essence of this book. The “whispering” is quite an accomplishment. We have a lot of books this year that shout their messages, but this is different. The messages of tolerance and hope do come through powerfully, but slowly and quietly. In some ways the book is Red’s story about the events surrounding Samar, but it’s really Red’s own story, and Red’s worldview, that are at the heart of things.
We don’t even see Samar until the eighth short chapter, and we just get a hint of her troubles, without specifics: “Samar has the look of someone who has seen too much. Someone who wants the world to quite itself.” (p. 27) The act that instigates the book’s main action slips in slowly too. By taking her time and carefully showing everything through Red’s way of thinking, talking, and understanding, the tension of the act builds steadily. The “lanky boy” appears on page 37; Red gets cut on page 44: we finally learn what the word is on page 50. Mixed in between is bunch of Red ramblings, including a corny joke, a bit of “Wise Old Tree” philosophizing, and some fun banter between Red and Bongo. The carefully paced revelation allows the tension to build gradually…we know something wrong is happening, but experience it just in the way that Red wants to tell it.
The way the word is finally revealed, through an overheard conversation between a mother and her toddler, is just right: We learn the word, then see the subtler parts of the mother’s response, which includes a look at the two houses and shake of her head. Those clearly heighten the meaning to readers, though Red doesn’t really tell us any more than what Red sees.
It’s a risk to tell a story this way. Readers have to be as interested in Red’s ramblings as they are in the events of the story. We spend all of our time in Red’s head, so Red’s strong sense of compassion and life-appreciation needs to matter as much to readers as the more dramatic moments where Samar, and in turn Red, are threatened. We also have to readily accept Red’s ability to talk and to read, and Red’s knowledge of human lives without thinking too much about that part of it. Applegate makes it work with a deft blend of storytelling, humor, and sometimes lyrical language. She takes on a serious issue in a way that’s a little roundabout, but in the end completely direct.
Some comments from the earlier Heavy Medal WISHTREE post were less than enthusiastic. Too sweet and syrupy for some. Some concerns about the logistics of a talking, reading tree. Maybe an overly high level of suspension of disbelief. I think these are all concerns worth discussing…all made it into my notes in some form. But then I think of “excellence of presentation for a child audience” (Terms and Criteria) and wonder how much those elements really come into play with the intended audience of older elementary school age readers. Many will view WISHTREE as highly original, and equal parts entertaining, engaging, and thought-provoking. All of which could even add up to “distinguished.”
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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