Updated: May 16
"But those who want to talk and tell,
And those who will not listeners be,
Will never hear a syllable
From the lips of any tree.”
Katherine Appleton begins her book WISHTREE with the poem ‘Be Different to Trees’ by Mary Carolyn Davies, which I found myself turning back to as I finished reading the last page of this book.
The story is narrated by ‘Red’ an oak tree who is 216 rings old. Having seen life all around him for all these years, Red is constantly sharing his thoughts, opinions with the residents who seek refuge in his hollows ...the same hollows that began as wounds, yet slowly healed to provide protection and a safe home to many creatures.
“...proof that something bad can become something good with enough time and care and hope.”
He loves philosophising with his friend, a crow named Bongo. his relationship with humans remains complicated as he tries to understand how they can hug trees one minute, and turn them into tables and tongue depressors, the next.
Red, named for the colour of his foliage in fall, is a ‘wishtree’. Every year on the first day of May, people adorn him with scraps of paper, tags, strips of fabric and other bits and bobs while they make a wish, often a dream, a desire or even a deep longing.
The wishes invariably are hopes for something better. Red listens to them all, holding them within his rings and limbs, never commenting as it’s against the laws of nature for nature to communicate with humans.
When a Muslim family moves to the neighbourhood, Red observes how they are treated by neighbours. Threats are carved on his trunk, eggs are thrown, and ugly words shouted from passing cars. From the time that 10 year old Samar, the daughter of the new family, hangs a wish on Red’s branch, he hears her whisper a wish aloud and wants to find a way to make her wish come true. Overhearing the property owner's plans for him, Red breaks some rules and ask his friends for help him, as they try to work together towards helping Samar's wish come true.
Wishtree is a gorgeous book, peppered with delicate monochrome illustrations of leaves floating across the page, acorns, branches, animals, birds and one old and a wise old tree.
Given the illustrations, slightly larger print and spaced our lines, a flick through would deceive you into believing that it is a book meant for a younger reader.
As simple as it may appear, it is a tale that cuts deep with tenderness. A tale that is bound to leave readers of all ages pausing to reflect.
There is depth laced with humour that will help younger readers connect with the deeper elements of the story.
I particularly delighted in the explanations of how the animals were named. For example:
Skunks name themselves after pleasant scents (e.g. HomeMadeBread, RosePetal, HotButteredPopcorn)
Opossums name themselves after things they fear (HairySpiders, Flashlight).
I also loved the analogy of biases, prejudices and one-upmanship in nature and in humans….the tree a mini community, reflecting the larger community it inhabits. Applegate paints a true picture, one in which nature…be it humans or animals, compete for resources, in a manner that may not always be considered kind or fair.
In simple prose, Wishtree tells a tender tale that encourages readers to think about diversity, inclusion, acceptance, kindness and the true nature of friendship. It is a tale of hope.
I quote from “Trees in Indian Children’s Literature”, that I wrote for Sustainability Next”...
“In The Island of the Missing Trees Eli Shafak writes, ‘A tree is a memory keeper. Tangled beneath our roots, hidden inside our trunks, are the sinews of history.’ Trees are, indeed, rooted sentinels who serve as great ‘record keepers’, tucking away all they witness in the rings within their trunks.”
These words come alive in ‘Wishtree’.
Read here for more suggestions of books featuring trees. "Trees in Indian Children's Literature".
The 'wishtree' tradition features in many cultures around the world.
A wishing tree is an individual tree which has been chosen specifically, and is used for offerings and wishes. These trees are identified as having a special traditional, spiritual, or cultural significance. On certain days or festivals people come to these trees and make offerings, which could be notes or coins, whispering a wish or a prayer.