By Deanna Day-Wiff, Washington State University, Vancouver, WA, and Kathleen Crawford-Mckinney, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
Trees. They make our world more beautiful and they provide food and shelter for wildlife and keep the soil, water and air clean for us. They decorate front and back yards across North America. Their wood is used for paper and lumber. Wooded areas are preserved for us to hike and enjoy nature. Trees are a necessity and are the theme of this month’s My Take/Your Take. Learn about all of the new children’s books around trees through the perspectives of Deanna Day and Kathleen Crawford-McKinney.
KATHLEEN: There are so many topics, issues and themes, alluded to in this fast–paced chapter book, Wishtree, including inclusion, acceptance, and hate-crime. Red, an over 200-year-old wishing tree, has seen so much over his lifespan. A wishtree is an old Irish custom where people write out their wishes on rags and tie them to the tree. This red oak tree narrates the events as a new family moves into the neighborhood and a hate crime occurs.
Samar, a lonely 10-year-old girl, sneaks out at night to be with the nature all around her under the old red oak tree where Bongo the crow, raccoons, owls, and opossums reside. She writes out a wish to have a friend and ties it to Red. In the house next door, Stephen is the friend she longs for.
The major conflict in this story occurs when an older neighborhood boy carves the word “LEAVE” on Red’s trunk. There is hope when Stephen rallies his classmates, teacher, the principal, and many other students to stand behind Samar’s family to encourage them to stay. On the wishing day the whole school shows up to tie their wishes on the tree; all of the notes have one word “STAY.”
This is a tough topic to discuss with any age, but Applegate gently takes on this issue through her superb storytelling. One of my favorite lines is when Red reflects on the responsibility as the keeper of the wishes. “But people are full of longings, and decade after decade the hopes kept coming. A blessing and a burden it has been, all those wishes, all those years. But everyone needs to hope.”
DEANNA: You are right Kathleen, Applegate has an amazing writing gift because this easy to read novel is humorous, historical and handsome. I enjoyed Red’s stories about the complicated relationships he has with people–one minute humans are hugging trees, the next minute they are turning trees into tables or tongue depressors.
Since Red has been around for a long time, he has seen many interesting things. Surprising friendships between animals, he has been a home and community to many animals, and has witnessed picnickers, proposals, dreamers and storytellers underneath his branches.
Sadly, Red has also been under watered, over pruned, fertilized, fussed over, ignored and neglected during his life. Lightening has struck, and axes, chainsaws, diseases and insects have threatened–yet, Red stands tall and reaches deep. After reading this novel I have looked at trees differently. Every morning I walk around my neighborhood and notice the trees that have been mistreated and those that have been well cared for.
One thing I learned from Wishtree was that some trees are male and others are female. But as an oak tree, Red was monoecious because he had both male and female flowers. Gender is an important topic in our world and what pronouns would describe Red. Is Red a she, he, her, him, hers, his? Red’s personality comes through in each chapter so I wouldn’t consider the tree to be an “it” even though trees are inanimate objects. What do you think Kathleen?
KATHLEEN: Red is definitely not an “IT!” Red is a wise old tree with deep rooted heart strings for the community. It is interesting to wonder what pronoun Red would want. It really makes me think about queer compassion and what other books, if you go looking for comfort/support, you can find characters that are neither male or female. The New York Times came out with an interesting article on this issue last February titled “The Gay History of America’s Classic Children’s Books.” It doesn’t specifically take on gender naming, but it does engage the reader with old favorites from the 1960s-70s that have a secret language of queer compassion.
Author: Katherine Applegate
Illustrator: Charles Santoso
Date Published: September 26, 2017
Throughout September 2019, Deanna and Kathleen give their takes on books focused on the importance of trees. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!