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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Sometimes a Tree isn’t Just a Tree

wishtreeKatherine Applegate is the master of a certain kind of quiet novel.  I’ll resist comparisons to her previous Newbery winning title, though, and stick to just this book and this year.  WISHTREE whispers its message of tolerance and hope

With such slight text, Applegate manages to make characters that are real, believable, flawed, and honest.  Both the humans and animals have voices.  The naming conventions for all the animals was clever and did a lot to give character to large numbers of animals in a very short time.

This book delivers a similar message to AMINA’S VOICE, but more gently.  Where AMINA’S VOICE feels didactic and overdone, WISHTREE feels subtle and strong.  Applegate has managed to turn a tree into a delightful narrator and a driver of social change.  Part of what I think suceeds about this book is the small-scale of this social change.  WISHTREE isn’t about a ban against Muslims, or building a wall.  It is about a tree and two children from two families.   It is social change that is understandable to a young audience and powerful to all.

Themes of environmentalism are also at play here, and are handled with equal care.  WISHTREE, for me,  is very strong on interpretation of theme or concept and is high on my list of middle grade books for this year so far.   It is up there with CLAYTON BYRD SINGS THE BLUES.  Would it get one of my nominations?  I’m not sure, but I would definitely consider it.



Sharon McKellar About Sharon McKellar

Sharon McKellar is the Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee, The Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, and the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at


  1. I read this on Sunday in one sitting, and I wonder if that single-devouring ultimately undid the book for me.

    First, the positives: the interpretation of theme was spot on. As you point out, Sharon, there is very little didacticism at work here. The message is delivered sweetly (though not always subtly) and I think many children will respond positively to that; furthermore, the theme is handled appropriately for the age group. It is gentle and thoughtful and (to use this word again) sweet.

    I very much appreciated the story-within-a-story that operated as the anchor to the present action. Applegate manages to weave that tale into the narrative in a surprising and satisfying way, and the connection between Maeve and Francesca felt fairly authentic (though, perhaps, a bit of willing suspension was necessary). I also thought the characterization of the animals, especially the naming conventions, was cute, and the magical realism of them naturally interacting with Samar was… (ugh, again) sweet. I found, too, the prose effective and smartly paired down to its essence.

    But… that’s about it. Even though the story’s heart was emotional, I didn’t feel much. Maybe I was coming down from my WAR THAT FINALLY WON high, but the overall impact didn’t resonate with me. Maybe because I didn’t allow myself to more deeply think about the book by putting it down for a little bit before continuing, but I was caught up in the story and it reads like a whip. Something was missing for me, and it’s hard to articulate. The ever elusive x-factor. I liked the book, I think kids will like the book, I’d even wager that the Real Committee will like the book. But I was left a little hollow.

    • Sara Coffman says

      Yes, Joe. Complete agreement here. Nothing wrong, but something hollow. It has not left me thinking or hoping or giggling as others have. And like Safranit Molly, I felt it “needed more” – it did not feel unfinished, but it also did not feel whole. Even Sharon’s post is shorter than usual (no complaints, Sharon, but I do wonder if the shorter post was because you had less to work with?). Finally, I must add my nitpicking voice to Alys’s because I, too, was bothered by the WASP-y orientation of the animals, especially Agnes and Harold’s “sensible names.”

      Now, someone amazing and thoughtful, tell me what I missed. It’s hard to believe we’re all going to sit around this campfire singing the same song….

      • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says

        I’m definitely willing to engage in that conversation. I for sure had a hard time coming up with a lot to say about the book (as is evidenced by the post length) and when I thought more about if or how I would nominate it, realized I had not enough to say.

        Yet, I still find the book touching and special. I’d love to see someone champion it a bit. Anyone?

  2. Safranit Molly says

    I’m with Joe on this one. I read the arc this summer; with all the hype around it, I just couldn’t wait! I borrowed the arc from my wonderful local bookstore. However it felt like a great idea that didn’t quite take off; I thought perhaps it needed more. More development, more story, more of something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a lovely story that I think kids will enjoy and they will internalize the messages of tolerance and environmentalism that are very gently (and not didactically) presented. Unfortunately it just didn’t rise to the top for me under the consideration of the Newbery criteria. However I am willing to listen to other voices that may say that it does.

  3. I would love to see more people expounding on exactly what they felt was distinguished about this book, because I just wasn’t feeling it for the Newbery. Perhaps because I heard so much hype? I did enjoy it, it was very sweet, and I think it would be a superb read aloud with lots of opportunities for a teacher/parent is good at “voices”. But it was far too sweet, as Joe seems to think as well.

    It grated on my nerves that every single non-human character was highly anthropomorphized, but were supposedly living in the real world. I’m perfectly happy to have talking animals wearing clothes and being essentially human, and I am also perfectly happy to have talking animals in the wild if I have a belief that they’re at least somewhat realistically animal-like. And obviously even the best attempt to showcase animal thought is going to fall short, because the nature of being human is that we cannot shake our own assumptions and worldviews. But all of these animals, and the tree, felt 100% human to me, not even a tiny bit biological, and specifically American human. There was no attempt at all to present a non-human worldview or question why everyone, not just a few characters, cares so desperately about humans. All of the values held by the creatures are solidly human values, with a dash of unacknowledged American culture (friendship! love! acceptance! group protest!)

    The book couldn’t quite decide if it was a fantasy with cute talking animals or a realistic fiction book with a dash of imagination to allow us to understand what the animals were thinking (the way that, say, One and Only Ivan, did.) I felt it was a tone problem throughout.

    The naming practices of the animals is cute, but bothered me on other levels as well. I didn’t like the sort of condescending tone that Red uses when talking about how the other animals name themselves. It wasn’t something I could put my finger on, but there was just a sense that we were supposed to be amused by the ridiculousness of it. I suspect that it’s one of those things that had I been really into the book I would have seen as fond amusement instead of mocking, so maybe I’m the only one who got that vibe. But names have power. Naming culture varies widely around the world and we should respect that rather than being amused by it. Also, the owls who give themselves “sensible no fuss names” are Harold and Agnes, which signals that very WASPy names are “sensible.” (And maybe that’s nitpicking because it’s a sample size of two, but still…)

    • Alys, you articulated perfectly every reason this book felt hollow to me in your second paragraph. Thanks for helping me make that connection to myself. 🙂

  4. i think others have articulated most of my response to this title. It is very syrupy and reminds me of a Jane Yolen remark ( at least I think it was Ms. Yolen) that you have to be willing to kill your darlings. Here, on the other hand, Applegate seems to indulge her darlings.
    The other aspect is that I thought it started out very slow with entirely too much exposition of the premise.

  5. I’m kind of surprised I’m the first one to bring this up. But what kills the book for me is trying to figure out HOW the tree talks to the kids? There’s no explanation given at all. Physically, how does the tree make sound? It would actually work *better* if the crow weren’t using actual speech to talk with the kids.

    For that matter, how in the world does the tree communicate with all the different animals? I’d figure some kind of telepathy… but then it’s the same with the kids? By talking with the kids – we suddenly get the impression that actual sound is being used all along… and it just breaks down. A tree isn’t physically equipped to speak human language. And why would the animals use human language between themselves, anyway? (But if it wasn’t human language, why would Red use so many human proverbs.)

    Also, I didn’t really believe the tree’s voice. Sure Red is 216 years old, so would have had plenty of time to pick up human expressions. But all those proverbs? Maybe if Red had been doing lots of reading… but do people really say things like that when they’re outdoors, standing by a tree? It didn’t really feel authentically treelike to me.

    Oh, and I wonder how Red learned to read the notes.

    • I’m cheating to bring up THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN and CHARLOTTE’S WEB – but those books work partly because they acknowledge the difficulty of animals communicating with humans. And overcome that difficulty in clever ways. If they had even gotten the crow to communicate a message with the few words she knew – that would have felt so much more powerful. If the tree *can* talk to people whenever it wants, well, there would have been other times to break the rule, too. It ended up being way too easy. And I still don’t know HOW in the world the tree talked to them.

      • Now I feel guilty for not mentioning that it was a sweet story and I enjoyed it and I’m sure plenty of kids will love it. But thinking back over it, the world-building was lacking. (And that’s always where I get hung up.)

    • Sara Coffman says

      Interesting to me that my nit-picky reading self didn’t have trouble with this element at all. I read Stead/Twain’s THE PURLOINING OF PRINCE OLEOMARGARINE yesterday (thought it wonderful!!) and because of your comment, I noticed it handles this issue more directly. Hmmm…

      • It’s interesting that the author of THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN ignored the difficulties of communicating with humans. (Just a rule, flaunted under duress.) Because if it had been ignored in IVAN, it would have been a very different book.

        I’ve read half of PURLOINING so far and agree that it is wonderful! I don’t know how much is Mark Twain and how much is Philip Stead, but I assume it’s not eligible for the Newbery, because of not being original work? How about the Caldecott?

      • Leonard Kim says

        A transcript of Twain’s notes are available online here:

        Based on this, I believe this really is a Philip Stead book, not a Twain book. Stead has done a lot more with the source material than a lot of Newbery-eligible retellings of other stories.

        But I don’t actually think PURLOINING should win the Newbery. For this general type of book, I think THE GLASS TOWN GAME, which is inspired by Bronte juvenilia, is a stronger candidate.

      • Sara Coffman says

        Leonard, I agree GLASS TOWN GAME is wonderful – I’m a huge fan of Valente’s! But I really loved the Stead/Twain work, and I agree it should qualify. What do you think makes GLASS TOWN more distinguished?

  6. Whoa. My response to this book is entirely positive so it’s kind of a surprise and feels like a hit on the head with a sledgehammer. I can understand all the complaints and know that certain elements of the book must have grated on others. However, it worked for me beautifully.

    I think part of it is Applegate’s ability to write both lyrically and humorously. And I think it is exactly the kind of gentle and yet immediate story that many young middle grade readers will respond to extremely well — and again, I want to champion this special talent of children’s authors who can speak directly to child readers.

    I was moved. I read the book not in one sitting but in several chunks of reading time over one whole day. It is definitely a sweet story — but is it too sugary or just right? Is this a case of personal taste or is it objectively measurable?

    • Thank you, Roxanne. I was feeling extremely uncool for liking this book so much. I just finished it last night and found it satisfying. Yes, Sondy, I did pause to wonder how Red “spoke”, but found I could suspend my belief easily for this narrator.

      And speaking to child audience: Two days ago when I was only part way through the book, I was ambushed by a delirious 6th grader over my lunch break. She was grasping the book in her hands, a copy it would appear she had purchased on her own, desperate to know if an author could win the Newbery more than once. Because as she explained to me the same writer had also published the book BOB AND IVAN. I was happy to explain that an author could indeed repeat, and then blew her mind with the Koningsberg double in 1967.

      • Oh my, DaNae – that is such a sweet story! Thank you for sharing it!

        I’m so happy to know that children respond positively to this book (any book for that matter).

    • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says

      I’m glad to hear you both liked it. I think that this conversation (these comments) may have convinced me it is not the most distunguished book of the year, and maybe is too controversial to get far in discussions, BUT there was something about it that I found utterly charming and child-friendly. Glad I’m not alone.

      • I find it a lot more distinguished than some other highly touted books this year, actually. Applegate really knows how to put together sentences that are both simple and profound and there is so much wise but also child-friendly humor in the book. Red’s life’s mission is to: “Cradle down owlets. Steady flimsy tree forts. Photosynthesize.” The passages about how the wounds from the past got healed into hollows and then hollows become homes for animals are something that perhaps not many people consider on a daily basis — and definitely not many urban children — but Applegate could find the connections and make them both understandable and emotionally tangible for young readers.

        I also find the fact that the bigotry/discrimination incident seems to be developmentally appropriate for young readers, say from 3rd to 5th grade — it offers enough of a concern without being elevated to a truly threatening level. Some adult readers here might find the hopeful and gentle treatment of a potentially explosive scenario underwhelming, but my 6th graders who heard about our discussion here today (I saw 96 of them today) found it hard to grasp that some adults might question the hopefulness of the book.

  7. I found this an old-fashioned and perhaps overly sweet story and I agree somewhat with the concerns mentioned in the early comments. I appreciated the specifics brought up by Sondy and Alys. I’m not sure the book is the most distinguished book ever, but it might be among the more distinguished titles this year. The discourse in the public square is so bitter and so profane that I think the sweetness of this book goes over better now than it might in another year. Kids are so anxious about so many things that a book like this will likely strike a deep chord in many of them as it has for DaNae’s student. Newbery aside, I think it’s a great book to spark a conversation or to pair with a more gritty YA or adult book for a community wide read.

    • As far as being good for current times – Oh my yes! I do hope that kids read this book and share it with all their friends. I don’t think it’s the most distinguished. But I think it could end up being the most loved by kids. It feels like a very nice way of saying, “Can’t we all just get along?”

  8. I admit I have been avoiding reading this book because of irrational reasons related to why some here have not been enthused about it (e.g. “sweet” etc). However, the comments in favor of it have gotten me finally to pick it up. I’m just a few chapters in, but am liking the voice very much. Surprised and feeling I’ve been unfair to to stay away until now.

  9. I loved it with all it’s glorious sappiness. I don’t have it in me to expand my thoughts right now..but I will say the kids in my class that have read it enjoyed it very much too.. especially the animals coming together to help.

  10. This is probably too far off topic for this site and please delete it if it is.
    I just ran across the most gorgeous book to pair with The Wishtree. It’s WISE TREES by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel. It’s a large format photo book with gorgeous pictures of ancient & beautiful trees with a few paragraphs about their social, spiritual, or historic importance to the local community. The trees are from all over the world and include a wish tree here in Portland that I had assumed was the basis of Applegate’s book, though I have not seen her mention it in any interviews. It’s a spendy coffee table sort of book so you might have to get one from the public library but it is a gem and adds a nice international dimension to Applegate’s story.

  11. Mary Ann Scheuer says

    I have just finished rereading Wishtree and definitely think it stands up well on second read. I’d like to add both some comments from our students and a closer look at Applegate’s language. Our students have really responded to the fact that the tree tells this story. It’s something they don’t expect, and Red’s humor wins them over. Right from the beginning, uses humor to hook readers:
    “Trees have a rather complicated relationship with people, after all. One minute you’re hugging us. The next minute you’re turning us into tables and tongue depressors.” (2)

    I also notice how well Applegate develops Red’s character, helping readers connect with the tree’s perspective. Here’s one example
    “After Samar left, I felt restless. Restlessness is not a useful quality in a tree. We move in tiny bits, cell by cell, roots inching farther, buds nudged into the sunlight. Or we move because someone transplants us to a new location. When you’re a red oak, there’s not point in feeling fidgety.” (81)
    And yet Red does take action. Does take a stand.

    I agree with Roxanne here that Applegate speaks directly to the child reader. Two students, Yulissa and Lol-Be, talked about how this reminded them of the Lorax: “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” Red must take a risk, not only speaking for the trees but also speaking for friendship. They could connect to the difficult situation of speaking up and taking a risk. One thing that is particularly notable is that these fifth graders read at quite different levels, since one speaks English as a second language and the other is a very strong, advanced reader. I was especially struck by how thoughtfully each spoke about the themes in this story.

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