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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: Wishtree

wishtreeShort List Title: WISHTREE (Titles on our short list will be included in the live Mock Newbery in Oakland.)

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.”   


Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. 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


  1. Leonard Kim says:

    “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.”

    I personally enjoyed Red’s ramblings more than the ostensible story. My response to this book was similar to the way I react to, say, the first movie in a superhero or sci-fi series. In such movies, I frequently admire the way characters are introduced and the world is built, which is often done in a novel, clever, and efficient way. But once the movie settles into an “actual” story (bad guy, dastardly scheme, dark night of soul, loud battle and victory), things usually get a lot less interesting for me. WISHTREE isn’t a superhero movie, but it really did seem built on similar lines. I enjoyed the world-building and Red’s voice, the ““Wise Old Tree” philosophizing” and “fun banter” with Bongo. But I also felt establishing that did not also establish an expectation for any specific plotline – Applegate could have picked most any story, or not picked one at all. Put another way, like a superhero movie, this concept could easily support a series with many different stories. So the particular one that ended up in this particular book felt less distinct and less necessary than I would like from a Newbery winner.

    In Criteria terms, under “interpretation of the theme or concept” I would almost say that “interpretation of concept” was distinguished, but “interpretation of theme” was not, if that makes any sense. And as you also seem to suggest, I have questions about “development of plot” and whether this is distinguished.

  2. Sara Coffman says:

    I agree with Leonard’s explication here – I hadn’t thought of it in this way, but it works for me! As to the statement about how it “whispers its message of hope and tolerance,” I take issue with the idea that the message is whispered. The book does have an overall tone of quiet or gentleness, but the message itself feels heavy-handed to this reader. Now that I think of it in terms of Leonard’s comment (ie, this set-up could support any plot), the issue of a heavily moralistic message feels especially problematic. Even though I agree with the message and appreciate its timeliness, it feels under-developed somehow, and I question whether it can stand as distinguished.

  3. I have friends who struggle with talking animals and a talking tree really pushes their buttons. Once accepting that, I could have wished for less stereotypical animals. While this is highly successful at delivering a welcome message, I have a hard time seeing the writing as otherwise being distinguished.

    • Carol, I’m fascinated! Could you elaborate on the point of “stereotypical animals”? As to distinguished writing, I actually thought this is one of the strongest when it comes to prose writing. For example, when Red talks about her role in the community, she states, “Cradle down owlets. Steady flimsy tree forts. Photosynthesize.” The rhythm is poetic and imagery are strong. And that runs through the book. There is also gentle humor and multiple themes are delivered in a slim volume. For example, Red’s gender-fluidity is just a stated fact; the importance of inter-dependence within the animal colony/bio/ecosystem; the communal moral courage to protect outsiders/newcomers. All of these signify to me that the writing is distinguished.

  4. I guess what I mean about stereotypical animals is that Bongo is very crow-like in that he’s mischievous, smart and talkative. Agnes is the wise old owl. The opossums are shy. The skunks worry about their smell. It all builds naturally from their nature, which is fine, but it doesn’t make them distinctive from other talking animals in other books. A little more quirky would have appealed to me. I think Wilbur, Charlotte and Templeton are quite distinctive while still remaining true to their animal natures. Even in Wild Robot, Chitchat the squirrel has a vivid way about him. I know comparisons to other books are verboten, and in the real committee I’d be looking at more of the text, but I don’t have a copy right now.

    I liked quite a bit of what you mention, but I feel like we are told so many things, rather than shown. We’re definitely told how frogs name themselves, and how skunks do, etc. There is a lot of telling in the beginning that I wished to be more integrated throughout so that I could be more drawn in to the story right away. It moved very slowly for me in the first third and only picked up when I began to sense the threats to Samar and to Red.

  5. Although I was rightly chided for not valuing ORPHAN ISLAND for the book it was over the book I wanted. I think more than any other book WISHTREE is perfect as the book it was meant to be. The message is not subtle, no one needs to reach for it, but a book that shows humanity its best side will always be a treasure. I found Applegate’s writing truly distinguished. Red’s voice is strong and true, along with Starr’s and Ada’s the best of the year.

    I’m not sure how this fits against criteria, but I think it does: this is a title that can be read and appreciated by the widest swath of the Newbery age range. I can see a second grade classroom loving the whimsical story along with a middle-school appreciation of its theme. I can see it being appreciated ten, twenty and fifty years from now. For those of us who have tried to go back and read older Newbery winners, we know that is a rare gift.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      An Atlanta mock newbery group met this past sunday and though this book (rightly) did not make our short list for discussion, we did butt up against something you wrote about WISHTREE.
      Namely that we “treasure” books with themes or messages that we appreciate or believe belong in books for young people. Many struggled with the idea of separating the theme/message from its execution.
      But I think that this separation is critical to fully embracing the criteria. WISHTREE’s theme or message should have no bearing on how committee members vote, just as THUG’s theme shouldn’t sway one either. The goal is to find the book that “interprets the theme” in the most distinguished manner, regardless of whether we “treasure” the message/theme or not.

      • Ah, I knew as soon as I hit post. that “treasure” would be fuel for derision. I should just keep my treasures to myself. I do find Applegate to have interpreted her theme with distinction. It’s not subtle, no one would need to stretch to find the message that tolerance should be more unifying than bigotry, She laid out an act of hate, she showed the fear and over-correction the act caused, then showed us the acts of civil disobedience that changed the course of Red’s fate. The vital verb is showed. Even though the theme is not complex she still showed it to us through the character’s action and the unfolding of the plot.

  6. I really loved Wishtree. Such a great voice, funny, engaging. I agree with Roxanne and Denae that the prose is excellent. And the world-building with the way the animals name themselves was so much fun. Overall, it just made me happy, which I realize is not a very analytical comment, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either. 😉 I liked that the xenophobia plot was so universal and boiled down to its emotional essence of stay vs leave. There were hints that it was more complicated among the adults (and it was nice that it wasn’t all resolved between them), but that was kept off-stage. So that seems like a very approachable, non-traumatic way to handle it for the younger end of the MG age range. And the “Stay” part made me tear up.

    I think the part when Red tells the story about the neighbor is not as successful. It’s an interesting story in its own right, but it’s so long and it doesn’t have anything to do with Red’s goal of getting the kids to become friends. So I don’t know why he’s even telling it to them. Or why he’s talking so much. It would have made more sense if he just said “diary” or something and then they found the story on their own. (Actually, it would have made more sense if Bongo had led them to the diary to try to save Red, since Red wasn’t actually trying to save himself.) And then the neighbor seemed to already know the story anyway, so I’m not sure why reading the diaries changed her mind so dramatically (also, she seemed to read very quickly!).

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