Newbery medalist Katherine Applegate’s dedication to Wishtree (Feiwel & Friends, Sept.) captures the essence of her new middle grade novel: “For newcomers and for welcomers.”
The story is narrated by Red, a red oak tree that has welcomed families to an immigrant neighborhood for more than two centuries. As the local “wishtree,” to which residents attach wishes they’ve written on scraps of cloth, Red has witnessed both the good and bad behavior of many generations. “And yet,” he says, “two hundred and sixteen rings, and I still haven’t figured them out.”
When a Muslim family moves in nearby, it becomes evident that not all of the neighbors are welcomers. Red’s role as a wishtree becomes more important than ever, and he and his crow friend set out to help residents embrace their differences.
“So many people are filled with frustration about the way things are going in our country, and I wanted to make a small plea for civility,” Applegate says about the genesis of the book. “I wanted to keep it simple, and came up with the premise that the word ‘LEAVE’ would be carved into a beloved community tree, and that sentiment would be targeting a newly arrived Muslim family.”
As she was making the final tweaks to her manuscript, Applegate says that she spotted a newspaper headline directed at a Muslim family in Iowa, with the words, “You Can All Go Home.“ “It occurred to me that this is a very frustrating case of life imitating art imitating life,” she recalls. “I want kids to ask, ‘Why is this happening? Why do people treat others this way?’ But that is not an easy question to answer. I know that I am hardly alone feeling so frustrated. Writing a book is exactly how authors ventilate.”
Applegate, who wrote her Newbery Award–winning The One and Only Ivan from the perspective of a gorilla, chose to write Wishtree from a tree’s point of view because she wanted an outsider’s, rather than a human’s, perspective. “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 a person to me,” she says. “I think of trees as witnesses, and wise.”
Applegate chose a common tree because “I wanted kids to be able to say, ‘Hey, we have one of those trees’ in their yards or at school,” she explains. “Red oaks live for a very long time and are very resilient—and that is a characteristic of newcomers. And I’ve been thinking lately that we can say the same thing about our country and democracy. So many of us are relying on the hope that our country will be resilient.”
Macmillan is supporting Apple12'gate’s goal of inspiring empathy in young readers by declaring September 28 Nationwide Wishing Day. In the spirit of the nationwide food drive the publisher launched in fall 2015 in conjunction with the release of Crenshaw, and Applegate’s ongoing campaign to inspire kids to help fight hunger, this initiative encourages booksellers, teachers, and librarians to participate by hosting events to benefit a local charity devoted to helping underserved children in their communities.
Visitors to Macmillan’s booth will find more information about Nationwide Wishing Day and can write a wish of their own on a leaf-shaped piece of paper to insert into a blowup of the book cover. For every wish collected, the publisher will donate one book to a child through First Book, a nonprofit that supplies books to low-income children.
Today, 10–10:30 a.m. Katherine Applegate will sign ARCs in the Macmillan booth (3008).