Katherine Applegate’s dedication to Wishtree, “for newcomers and for welcomers,” captures the essence of her latest middle-grade novel, due out next month from Feiwel and Friends. The story is narrated by an old red oak tree who welcomes families to the immigrant neighborhood he watches over. He serves as the local “wishtree,” and residents attach to his branches wishes they’ve written on scraps of cloth. When newcomers—a Muslim family—move in nearby, and it becomes evident that they aren’t welcomed by everyone, his role as wishtree becomes more important than ever. Applegate, who has addressed timely issues in her previous novels (animal abuse in her Newbery-winning The One and Only Ivan; childhood hunger in Crenshaw), spoke with PW about her inspiration for the novel, and its growing relevance in our country.
What was the spark that ignited Wishtree?
I wrote the novel in summer 2016, filled with frustration about the way things were going in our country. I wanted to make a small plea for civility, but I wanted to keep it simple and accessible to young readers. I came up with the premise that the word ‘LEAVE’ is carved into a beloved community tree, obviously targeting a newly arrived Muslim family. As I was making the final tweaks to the manuscript, I spotted a newspaper headline with the message “You Can All Go Home Now,” which was directed at a Muslim family in Iowa. It occurred to me that it was a very sad case of life imitating art imitating life.
I wanted kids to read this book and ask, “Why is this happening—why do people treat others this way?” That’s obviously not an easy question to answer, and I know that I am hardly alone in feeling so angry. I just wanted to ventilate, and writing a book is exactly how authors ventilate.
Why did you decide to write Wishtree from a tree’s point of view?
I knew I wanted to write from an outsider’s rather than a human perspective—and I’d already done a gorilla! [A gorilla is the narrator and title character of The One and Only Ivan.] There’s a tree in my courtyard that I often watch while I’m typing on my laptop. I see it drop its leaves, and sometimes I notice that it looks tired—and it’s become quite like a person to me. I think of trees as witnesses, and wise—which may be a cliché, but maybe clichés are there for a reason.
So I already had a tree in my head, and then politically, things started getting very dark and negative. I think of this country as being so welcoming, and it was hard to believe what was going on. That inspired me to dedicate Wishtree to newcomers and welcomers. There are so very many welcomers in this country, but sometimes we forget that.
And was there a specific reason you chose to make wishtree a red oak?
Actually there were a couple of reasons. I knew from my research that the red oak is a common tree in this country, and I wanted kids to be able to say, “Hey, we have one of those trees” in their yards or at school. Also, red oaks live for a very long time—up to 200 or even 300 years. And they are very tough—and that is a characteristic representative of newcomers. Making a huge life transition takes enormous bravery and resilience. Fortunately, our democracy is amazingly resilient, too.
If you were to tie a Wishtree–inspired wish to a real-life wishtree, what would it be?
My real wish is for the novel to encourage empathy. I hope readers will see newcomers to their school—whether they live down the street or come from across the world—and walk up to them and say, “Hello, I want to be your friend.”
I also love the idea of philanthropy springing from a book. It is so wonderful to see teachers, booksellers, and librarians connecting with a book and going the next step by encouraging kids to give something back. I’ve been lucky to see that happen with my earlier books, and it is happening with Wishtree. Macmillan is organizing Nationwide Wishing Day on September 28 to encourage bookstores, schools, and libraries to host events to benefit a local charity devoted to helping under-served children in their communities. [To date, 162 bookstores and 244 schools and libraries in 46 states have signed on to participate in the initiative.] There is always something kids can do—this is one possibility, but there are so many more out there. Encouraging kids to give back is what books are supposed to do, and it is very gratifying to see that happen.
These past few days since the Charlottesville protests have been heartbreaking, but whenever I feel discouraged, I think about the kids I meet. When I visit schools that are richly diverse, it is so beautiful to see children connecting with each other. I am always moved by their idealism—they are innocent enough to be open to and to believe in the possibilities of life. Those are the readers I write for, as well as kids who find themselves on the outside. They give me reason to hope. And as a character in Wishtree says, “Everyone needs to hope.”
Wishtree by Katherine Applegate. Feiwel and Friends, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-250-04322-1