Written by Katherine Applegate and Illustrated by Charles Santoso
2017 Feiwel and Friends
“My friends call me Red, and you can, too. But for a long time people in the neighborhood have called me ‘the wishtree.’” From celebrated author, Katherine Applegate, comes her latest literary triumph–Wishtree. Fast-paced, emotional, and contemplative, Wishtree captures the curiosity and hearts of readers from the first page consistently ‘til the last. Told from the refreshing point of view of Red, a seasoned oak tree, readers encounter a neighborhood and its changes from a new perspective. Each year on May 1st, Red’s branches become full of scraps of paper, bits of fabric, and the occasional gym sock with wishes written on them; Red become a wishtree. These tidbits represent hopes for something better. When ten-year-old Samara and her Muslim family move to town, it quickly becomes clear that they are not welcome when a boy carves the word LEAVE into Red’s trunk. While the soul of the neighborhood feels at stake, Red’s own future becomes uncertain as the landowner, Maeve, considers whether it’s time for Red to come down. Can Red still be a symbol of hope even if her trunk has been co-opted as a site of hate? Applegate masterfully balances the light-hearted voice of Red with the heavy and controversial topics of immigration and belonging. Charles Santoso’s illustrations add to the emotional impact of the characters’ life stories while also allowing readers to pause intermittently to simply enjoy the way his drawings of leaves appear windswept across the pages. While Wishtree has all of the stylistic, thematic, and literary elements to become a classic, the importance of this book in the present cannot be understated. If you believe literature can inspire a better world, and that children can learn who they want to become through stories, Wishtree is a critical book to add to your classroom library collection. Readers and listeners of any age will be forever changed thanks to Applegate’s unforgettable and unexpected narrator.
Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classrooms
Tapping Into Our Minds and Our Hearts: Readers Think and Feel. Often, in order for novels to have meaning for readers, the author must position readers to think in new ways and to feel complex emotions. Wishtree offers countless possibilities for readers to transact with the text by thinking and feeling. Periodically throughout the book, ask students to consider what they think and how they feel. Have students create a Thinking/Feeling log using writing or drawing as a way to track their ideas whether they are independently reading Wishtree or if they are experiencing it as a read aloud. Use this experience as a way to support students to make book choices throughout the year. For example, if students find that they are not actively thinking or feeling anything about the characters in a book, it may be time to abandon the book and try something new. If they find themselves with new thoughts and strong feelings, have students consider ways they can share those responses with others.
Playing with Point of View. In part, the memorable nature of Wishtree is thanks to the unexpected point of view of the narrator, Red, an old oak tree. Red’s voice is shared through primarily simple sentences packed with meaning. Support students to consider the impact of Red’s point of view on their understanding of the neighborhood’s story. Encourage students to act out scenes from the story using their voice and body to portray Red’s perspective. Should Red’s voice be loud or quiet? Should her voice go up each time she asks a question? Where would Red pause for effect? After supporting students to become the character of Red, have them consider the ways the story would have been different if told from another character’s point of view. Have students select a different character to retell one of the scene’s from a different point of view. As writers, how could they play with sentence structure, sentence length, punctuation, and word choice to make the character’s perspective come alive? Have them share their retellings with one another by reading or acting out each other’s new scenes.
Empathize to Understand: Rethinking Heroes and Villains. As readers, when we encounter complex characters we can often empathize with their situation to understand the story more fully. Encourage students to share who they find themselves empathizing with in Wishtree and to consider why. The most immediate responses might be that we are positioned to empathize with Red given her uncertain future and Samara and her family for the implicit and explicit hateful messages they receive. Yet, readers might also find themselves wondering about the boy who carved the word LEAVE and whether he is deserving of our empathy, particularly if there is hatred in his own life fueling his actions. Is every character deserving of our empathy whether they are the heroes or the villains? If empathy could be extended to every character in a story, what might that mean for people in our own lives? Engage in a discussion about the ways characters are more complex than we might initially realize just like people.
Text-to-Self Connections: The Value of Friendship. In the middle of Wishtree, Red wonders to his friend Bongo, a persnickety Crow, “How does friendship happen?” Pause to ask your students to discuss this question. How does friendship happen (or not happen) in their own lives? What makes someone a friend? Then, have students leverage this conversation to better understand the friendships in Wishtree. Who are Red’s friends and in what ways are they willing to put themselves in harm’s way to save their friend? What launches the friendship between Samar and Stephen? How is their friendship sustained and even strengthened when Samar’s family is faced with cruelty? How do the characters in Wishtree serve as friendship role models for how we could treat our own friends? In order for friendship to happen, someone has to “go first”–someone has to introduce themselves, ask someone else to play, or offer a point of connection. Challenge your students to approach someone new with the spirit of friendship drawing on your discussion of the friendships in Wishtree.
Making and Creating Wishes. Red describes each wish that hangs from her branches as “a dream, a desire, a longing.” Discuss as a class the kinds of wishes people hang on Red. Research the history of wishes across cultures. Red briefly describes the “long and honorable history” of wishes in Ireland hung on Hawthorn and Ash trees. Give students time to craft their own wish list of things they hope and dream for themselves and for the world. Visit the online Wishtree where students can type their wishes or add photo representations of their wishes to the wish gallery. Spend some time on the site to have students notice and name the wishes of others. What commonalities do they notice across the wishes they view? Discuss as a class ways to create your own physical wishtree in your classroom, school, or local community using a planted tree or by using art materials to craft a tree. Using Stephen as an example, encourage students to think about how to turn their wishes into actions that could help others.
Taking Root, Spreading Seeds of Kindness: Duet Reading. Pair Wishtree with Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman to explore the ways gardening and plant life metaphors help us make meaning of communities. Discuss the specific ways Red compares her neighborhood to a garden. How does this compare to the ways the characters in Seedfolks discuss their neighborhood? How do the characters in each story make others feel welcome or unwelcome? Then, turn these reading experiences into action by creating a class plan for how to make others feel a sense of belonging in your class community.
Sentence Level Writing: Crafting for Voice. Traditionally, young writers are often taught that sentences must have a subject and a predicate. How does Applegate defy this rule effectively in Wishtree and in her other novels. Have students gather other books where authors play with our traditional notions of sentence construction in order to make the voice of the character come alive such as Ghost by Jason Reynolds. Discuss as a class the value of playing with sentence length and the use of fragments for effect. As students compose narratives throughout the year, consider freeing them from traditional notions of sentence structure to explore the value of fragments to enhance a character’s voice, to highlight a change in a character’s feelings, or to create a page-turning effect.
Research that Strengthens Fiction. Katherine Applegate was intentional in her selection of a Northern Red Oak tree for Red’s species. Research as a class how Northern Red Oaks compare to other trees to consider the ways that research helped Applegate craft Wishtree. Gather other fiction books where authors have clearly done research to embed scientific information to strengthen the storyline such as The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin.
One Little Word. The power of the single word “LEAVE” has a tremendous impact on the neighborhood as does the word “STAY”. Discuss the power of one little word with the class and how words shape our thoughts about ourselves and others. Challenge students to think of one little word that they want to focus on this year. Brainstorm ideas through shared or interactive writing. Periodically, have students reflect on how that one little word is shaping their thoughts and feelings. This is also a powerful thought exercise to engage the entire school in through an interactive bulletin board.
Reading for the Power of Love. The characters in Wishtree express love to one another in myriad ways. Consider as a class the love expressed from Red to people in the neighborhood, the love between Red and the animals that call her home, and in turn, the animals’ love to Red. How does reading with love in mind help us consider what’s most important in a story? Consider gathering other books that explore the power of love such as the recent Love written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Loren Long as well as I Am Loved by Nikki Giovanni. Support students to notice the ways characters express love to one another throughout your reading instruction throughout the year.
Author Study. As the author of dozens of books, Katherine Applegate’s work is widely known. Create opportunities for students to read across her books including Newbery Medal winner The One and Only Ivan, The New York Times Bestseller Crenshaw, and her first middle grade book, Home of the Brave. Consider creating book clubs that allow students to select another Applegate text for study with classmates. Encourage conversations among students that explore character development, how Applegate creates voice, and how her books position them to think and feel in new ways. Some questions book clubs could consider include: In what ways do Applegate’s books evoke similar themes of belonging, resilience, hope, and strength? What do you notice about the ways in which her texts are structured? What techniques does she use at the sentence level to create voice in her writing for her characters to feel so relatable?
Immigration Stories. Draw students’ attention to the dedication Applegate chose for Wishtree–for newcomers and for welcomers. Discuss as a class what they might infer about Applegate’s perspective on immigration in America. Discuss the ways different characters have immigration stories such as how Maeve’s Irish family heritage influences her thinking as a community member and how her family’s immigration story compares to Samara’s. Immigration is a hotly contested topic that evokes strong feelings. Create a space for students to share their thoughts on immigration. Research as a class current perspectives on immigration and issues that particularly impact children such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy using resources such as newsela and the Pew Research Center. Consider gathering stories specifically about refugees using our Classroom Bookshelf suggestions. Finally, have students research their own family immigration stories by interviewing family members about arrivals to America.
Difficult Decisions: The Power of Speaking (Up). Red makes a difficult decision to speak to Samar and Stephen to tell the story of Maeve’s family. Discuss as a class whether Red made the right decision for her and the community. Speaking up requires courage under any circumstance. Have students reflect on times they made a difficult decision to speak up, particularly to help others. Have students reflect on two adults in their lives they could speak up to when experiencing a difficult decision. Consider exploring with students the ways people throughout history have spoken up to support others and how people are speaking up today. As a nation, we are witnessing peaceful protests and marches to speak up on behalf of women and girls, for science, and for recognition of racial injustice. Consider engaging in conversations about these events and why they occur.
A Profile of Katherine Applegate
Pew Research Center DACA data
Newsela article on DACA
Applegate, K. (2008). Home of the brave. New York, NY: Square Fish.
Benjamin, A. (2015). The thing about jellyfish. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Fleischman, P. (2004). Seedfolks. New York, NY: HarperTrophy.
Reynolds, J. (2016). Ghost. New York, NY: Atheneum.
About Katie Cunningham
Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.
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