Book Reviews · Middle-Grade

Book Review: Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate

If trees could talk, what would they say? That’s one of the many questions asked by Wishtree, a 2017 Middle Grade novel by Katherine Applegate.

The narrator is a red oak tree, but the story follows many characters: the animals that make their home in the tree, the owner of the land the tree is on, and the children of the two families who rent the houses on that property. Every year, the people of the town come to the tree to make wishes, which they write on pieces of fabric and tie to the branches. The tree has no power to grant their wishes, but it becomes determined to grant a little girl’s wish for a friend.

This little girl has moved into one of the two houses on the property, and she immediately forms a close bond with the tree, sneaking out to sit beneath it every night. The tree begins to care for the girl, and it becomes increasingly frustrated at its inability to help her. Not only does she have trouble making friends, but one day, a stranger carves the word “LEAVE” into the tree’s bark. She and her parents are immigrants from the Middle East, and not everyone is happy to welcome them.

Meanwhile, the owner of the property is growing increasingly frustrated with the annual Wish Day festivities, as well as the damage the tree’s roots are doing to the houses’ plumbing systems. The vandalism pushes her over the edge, and she decides to chop the tree down. While the animals that live in the tree search for new homes, the tree itself, who had expected to live for hundreds of years longer, has to face its own impending death and becomes increasingly determined to grant the little girl’s wish as a final act of kindness.

An unconventional narrator, like a tree, is the sort of thing that seems like a recipe for disaster. How can a human reader sympathize with a tree? How can a human author understand what a tree might think and do if it had a humanlike mind and the ability to act? How can any of this be pulled off without seeming ridiculously cheesy? It seems like the sort of thing that could never work, and yet somehow it does.

The tree never seems fully human. It looks at humans from an outsider’s viewpoint and cares for them but does not understand them. At the same time, though, it’s characterized in a way that, while distinctly tree-like, is relatable enough to seem real. I found myself seeing the story through the tree’s eyes, understanding its perspective as well as the human characters’. Its intervention in the story is just subtle enough to allow suspension of disbelief without making it a passive observer, and the story touches on powerful themes and ideas that make it a story worth telling, as well as one with potential to appeal to readers far older than its target audience.

From Page to Screen · Middle-Grade

From Page to Screen: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time has never been one of my favorite books. I feel like it’s important to say that upfront. I liked it but didn’t love it as a kid, and I felt about the same when I re-read it recently in preparation for the movie. I’m a book person, and this is a book blog, but for once, I went into a movie adaptation of a book without any kind of set-in-stone feeling that the book would be better, no matter what they did. This is not one of those books for me.

Many movies based on books fall shortest in character development. While books have hundreds upon hundreds of pages to flesh out their characters, not to mention the ability to show readers what they’re thinking and feeling, movies have to rely on dialogue and acting choices within a much more limited time frame. However, the characters in A Wrinkle in Time were beautifully realized. Charles Wallace in particular comes across as brilliant and childlike at the same time, which is quite the accomplishment for a young child actor playing a five-year-old genius. Meg’s parents and Calvin all remain mostly true to how they were portrayed in the book, but in Meg’s story, the movie actually takes things further and does – dare I say? – a better job of exploring who she is. For instance, in both book and movie, Mrs. Whatsit gives her the “gift” of her flaws to help her on Camazotz, but in the book this just means that she has to tap into her stubbornness to resist IT’s power. In the movie, it’s by accepting herself, faults and all, that she’s able to resist and free her mind from IT’s control.

The characters’ relationships and interactions with each other ring true. Mr. and Mrs. Murray’s love for each other, their love for their children, the growing friendship and attraction between Meg and Calvin, and the mentorship provided by Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit all play out believably on screen. But where the movie really shines is in showing the deep, powerful love between Meg and Charles Wallace. The moment where she realizes that her love for her brother is stronger than IT’s hold over him is already by far the most powerful moment of the book, and would have been one of the worst places to fall short on. Thankfully, the two young actors really do an exceptional job, not only on that scene but on building up a convincing brother/sister relationship throughout the movie that gives the scene a strong foundation to stand on.

My biggest problem with the book is the stilted dialogue, and in that area, I’d say the movie is better. It’s still sometimes a bit cheesy – for instance, Mrs. Who speaking only in quotes gets old pretty fast – but at least the kids do talk to each other pretty much like normal kids, and the three Mrs. W’s aren’t really human anyway.

It’s not until they get to Camazotz that things begin to go wrong. In the book, Camazotz is both far more mundane and far more disturbing. It’s not the origin of the darkness, and it’s not some kind of nightmare illusion planet. It’s just a planet – a surprisingly earth-like planet at that – which has completely given in to the darkness. To me, the idea that a whole planet full of people – humans, because the people of Camazotz are human, or at least close enough that no one can tell the difference – would collectively decide to choose evil over good, to give themselves up to complete conformity and choose to let themselves be mind-controlled pawns of a pure evil entity – is far more terrifying than the more intense action sequences of the movie. The people of Camazotz were explicitly real and alive in the book, and some were even capable of resisting, like the little boy who throws away his ball. In the movie, they’re all just illusions.

By extension, one of the novel’s main themes is lost. Or, at least, it loses some of its power. Camazotz was a place of complete conformity, and a greatly exaggerated reflection of the peer pressure Meg and Calvin experience at school. On a different level, the society shown on Camazotz suggests that evil succeeds when people stop thinking and acting as individuals. Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace actually speak to several of Camazotz’ people, some of whom are too afraid to help and some of whom are simply indifferent. Nowhere do we see a human inhabitant of Camazotz, aside from the red-eyed man, actually doing something evil – but we do see them going about their daily business as if the world that they live in isn’t consumed by evil. Camazotz in the book is sort of a cautionary tale for those of us on Earth, but in the movie it’s not much more than a pop-up book of nightmares.

So, was the book better? Yes … and no. Everything from the moment they arrive on Camazotz to the end of the movie – with the exception of Meg’s love saving Charles Wallace – was completely off the mark. As an adaptation, it can hardly compare when it completely overlooks one of the book’s main themes in favor of pointless action sequences. But from a character point of view, it was excellent, and perhaps even better than the book. I did like it, and I’ll probably buy the DVD when it comes out, but I still wish someone involved had understood what the point was to all those identical houses and balls bouncing in rhythm.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: No Talking, by Andrew Clements

Yes, I know: I said I’d be reading a kids’ book a week, and it’s been nearly two. But better late than never, right?

I chose No Talking, by Andrew Clements, because I’ve enjoyed all of his books that I’ve read so far and thought it had an interesting premise. The fifth graders at an elementary school challenge each other to a competition – boys versus girls – to see who can talk the least, each trying to prove a point about the other. Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly go the way they planned, but they learn something much more important in the end.

The fifth grade boys and girls don’t usually get along, and that’s something of an understatement. As Clements explains it, they both still think the others have cooties, except they “didn’t actually use the word ‘cooties’ anymore … They used words like ‘dumb’ or ‘gross’ or ‘immature’ or ‘annoying’”. This isn’t too surprising, given that they’re fifth graders, but they take this to a whole new level with the contest they organize. They decide to spend 48 hours in near-total silence, allowing themselves only to speak to teachers or adults, and only in reply to direct questions, in less than three-word answers. Any words aside from those get tallied up by Dave and Lyndsey, the two team leaders, and the team with the lowest number at the end wins.

However, this odd sort of game the kids are playing has all kinds of real-world effects. They have to figure out how to problem-solve (by communicating through notes, clapping a beat for jump rope instead of chanting, etc.), how to compromise (singing doesn’t count, or else music class becomes impossible), and how to react to opposition (when the principal tries to order them to start talking again). By the end of the 48 hours, they aren’t thinking in terms of boys vs. girls so much anymore, and it’s almost a relief when the score comes out as a tie.

The thing I like about Andrew Clements’ books is that his kids are realistic and relatable. They’re not all perfect angels. They’re not always respectful to adults, and they don’t always follow the rules. But they’re always good kids who learn from their experiences and become better kids as a result. The best part is that it happens in a way that’s not preachy or condescending at all, even when there’s an important moral to the story. And that’s definitely the case with this book.

It’s a wonderfully light, humorous book, realistic without seeming mundane or dreary. This is something I love about the Andrew Clements books: they’re imaginative and larger than life. What happens in them is rarely impossible, but it’s still unusual and empowering. Most kids don’t write novels that get published, invent new words, or save classmates from a tornado. I think I would have enjoyed these books when I was a kid, even though they really weren’t in one of my preferred genres. I certainly love them now.

I didn’t love No Talking as much as I did The School Story, About Average, or The Landry News – most likely because the stakes aren’t quite as high, and the “no talking” competition seemed sillier to me as an adult than it might if I were reading it as a child. However, it was entertaining and engaging, and it had a great message at the end. I’d definitely recommend it for either boys or girls in the upper elementary age group, especially those that are looking for a humorous, realistic story.

Middle-Grade · teaching literature

Teaching Tuck Everlasting: Epilogue

I finished up Tuck Everlasting with the 5th graders this week. For a final project, I had each of them write a letter from Winnie to Jesse, explaining whether she would drink the water or not and why. Even this on its own is something they seemed to enjoy, but the real fun began in class, when I helped them use tea to “age” the paper and make the letters look like they really had been written a long time ago.

The first week with this book, many of the kids told me they didn’t like it or found it confusing. But by the end, almost every single one of them seemed to love it. We used class discussion to make the confusing parts easier to understand, and projects like writing letters and diary entries to give the kids something fun to look forward to. Even many of the students who struggle the most with reading, and the ones that have the most trouble motivating themselves, ended up telling me how much fun they were having, and there’s no greater reward than that for a teacher.

Except maybe being able to keep on doing it. When I originally started teaching weekly Novel Studies classes, I was filling in for another teacher who was on maternity leave, and the assumption was that it would only last until Spring Break. But now, I’ve been asked to keep doing it for the rest of the semester while she eases back into teaching. I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve already been looking at what books are left in the curriculum, and I’ve got some great ideas for how to teach them, so I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about that soon.

Middle-Grade · teaching literature

Teaching Tuck Everlasting

One of my favorite things about teaching is getting kids excited about reading. I’ll never forget my own eighth and ninth grade English teachers, who I credit with turning my love of reading into a love of literary analysis, much less the elementary school teachers who nurtured that love of reading in the first place. So it’s with great pleasure that I’ve taken over Novel Studies this quarter for a teacher who’s out on maternity leave. I meet with the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders one afternoon a week, for about half an hour, to lead a discussion on a book they’re all reading. I’m starting a new book – Tuck Everlasting – with fifth grade next week, and I’m already working on fun projects to do with them.

One thing I’ve come up with is this:


The book’s prologue uses the metaphor of a wheel, with Treegap Woods as the hub, uniting seemingly unrelated people and events. We’ll talk about what the author means by that in class and add a little more to the wheel each week based on what they’ve read, connecting the characters to the setting and to each other. I’m hoping this will help the kids keep track of all the unexpected connections and peak their curiosity about the novel’s mysteries.

Young Adult

Stories Worth Telling

When you think of children’s books, do you think of small, unimportant stories? A lot of adults probably do. But the stories we tell to children can ask big questions and address important themes. In fact, I’d go farther than that. I’d say that kids’ and teens’ books have more freedom to address important issues, because they’re so often looked at via metaphor, via science fiction or fantasy situations that are a step or two removed from real life, and yet still very relevant.

When was the last time you read a book, for pleasure, that asked readers to consider what makes a society function, what makes a society just, what it means to be a good neighbor and a good citizen, how different groups can coexist in peace, and how to react to an unjust and corrupt government? I’m not talking about a book on political theory or a historical fiction novel that’s more history than fiction. I’m talking about one of my favorite YA science fiction series, Dark Life, by Kat Falls.

The 2-book series is set in a post-global warming world where much of what is now land is underwater, and that’s only the first sign that it’s going to deal with some serious issues. On the surface, people live cramped into skyscraper apartment buildings, whole families allowed only one or two rooms. Other people live on the ocean itself, in ships, houseboats, and submarines, while still others live in an experimental colony on the sea floor. It sounds like the setup for a grim dystopian series, doesn’t it? And yet, the story isn’t really about a world gone wrong. It’s about a world people are struggling to make right again. And in a way, it’s about a society starting from scratch.

The first book asks its young readers to consider whether we all deserve the same rights, even if we’re different. Children who are raised at the bottom of the ocean begin to develop strange abilities usually associated with marine life: electric shock, camouflage, echolocation, etc. The protagonist, Ty, has one of these, called a “dark gift”. And so does the story’s villain. Near the end, other characters attempt to lynch the villain, claiming that his abilities make it too easy for him to escape from prison. It’s only when Ty reveals his own gift and asks whether his friends and neighbors are going to take away his rights, too, that they stop to think about what they’re doing.

In the sequel, Rip Tide, we’re introduced to the surfs, short for Surfeit Population, who live on huge “townships” because they are not wanted on land. It’s only then that we see how lucky Ty and his family have been; their lives underwater are hard, but compared to the surfs, they have it easy. The conflict between the subsea “pioneers” and the surfs, who both have a claim to the continental shelf, is a lesson in negotiation, and they reach a compromise that enables them to share the area. That’s such an important lesson for kids to learn as they grow up: that sometimes different people’s interests conflict without anyone really being in the wrong, and that such situations are better resolved through peaceful compromise than violence.

The two books both deal with what it means to be a good neighbor. In the subsea settlement where Ty grew up, neighbors help and depend on each other. When one family is struggling, others help them out; for example, when Ty’s neighbors are robbed by subsea outlaws, their entire community comes together to help them replace their schools of fish and drain the water from their house. Meanwhile, Gemma – who grew up on land – has never been alone, but has had few people she could depend on. The people in her community were not her neighbors, just people who happened to live nearby. In an age when people have hundreds of Facebook “friends” they may rarely talk to in real life, it’s worth exploring what makes someone a true friend or neighbor.

Finally, the Commonwealth – the futuristic government which controls the world above water – is clearly corrupt. This isn’t one of those stories about a brave group of teens who bring an end to the dystopia. It’s the just-as-worth-telling story of a brave group of people who live within it and make it a better place in small ways. They carve out a part of the world for themselves that they can make fair, just, and worth living in, even if it’s at the bottom of the sea; they go to great lengths to help their neighbors, both fellow “pioneers” and others they share the ocean with; they decide against vigilante justice and in favor of treating everybody equally; and they are welcoming to everyone who wants to join them. In my opinion, that’s a story worth telling, worth reading, and worth giving kids to read.


Series Out-of-Order

When I first read Among the Betrayed, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, in elementary school, I didn’t know it was part of a series. I definitely didn’t know it was the third book in the series, or that it picked up at the moment Among the Impostors left off, from a different character’s point of view. I just saw it in the Scholastic catalog and thought it looked interesting. Sometimes I still wonder if I’d see the Shadow Children series differently if I’d started with Among the Hidden.

I definitely read book 3 differently. I assumed from the start that Nina was trustworthy and that Mr. Talbot wasn’t, whereas it might be the other way around for someone who read them in order. I wondered along with Nina whether Jen had ever existed, and I believed she was really in danger where someone who read the first two might have figured out she was being tested. Perhaps most importantly, I had to figure out the weird rules of the series’ dystopian world in a book written for kids who already knew.

It affected the way I read the first two books, as well. I knew not to trust Jason. I knew that Jen’s father was a double agent. I could guess from the start that Jen’s rally would fail. I was as surprised by Luke’s comparatively normal childhood as his friends at school would be later, because I had Nina’s as a reference point.

Did it change the way I read the rest of the series? I don’t know. That’s a harder “what if” question to consider. I went into the last four books having read all of the first three. I was always attached to Nina, even though she was a minor character outside of book 3, but then again I felt the same way about Trey, and I certainly didn’t start with his book. But did I read the books through the lens of her experiences instead of Luke’s? I’m really not sure, but I think I’ll always wonder.