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.