Wishtree is a lovely and charming story for children ages 8-12, but I’m 56 and adored it. I heard about this book from a friend whose little girl loves it and reads it repeatedly. I can totally understand why that is. Wishtree is about friendship, community, diversity, and acceptance of those who are new in our “messy garden.” It’s full of delightful characters, gorgeously detailed ink illustrations, and an important message about speaking up for your neighbors.
The narrator of Wishtree is a 216-year-old red oak tree named Red, who is indeed the neighborhood wishtree. Every May first, folks in the neighborhood attach strips of cloth and paper to her boughs with their wishes on them. It’s a fun and silly tradition that has been going on for generations, and Red takes it all in stride. Red is a wise, nurturing character who is a neighborhood unto herself, housing a diverse array of inhabitants such as crows, owls, opossums, raccoons, and skunks. These creatures don’t always get along but mostly are ok with each other and with Red. Red has seen a lot in her 216 years, but she only ever talks to the other trees and the animals. You see, trees can talk, they just don’t talk to humans; it isn’t done. Or it wasn’t done until a wish was made that Red wanted to be able to grant.
Red grows near two houses in an old neighborhood, and into one of those houses moves a girl named Samar. She and her family are Muslim, and sadly, they become the target of hateful messages that are left on Red for them to see. Samar’s next door neighbor Stephen is her age, but their parents do not speak to one another, and so neither do Samar and Stephen even though they are in school together. Samar is alone and lonely, often coming outside in the middle of the night to sit under Red and play with the baby animals who live in her. When Samar wishes for a friend, Red wants to help her and finds that in order to do so, she might have to break her silence.
Red is such a wonderful character because she has been an eyewitness to her neighborhood’s history. She sees that it has always been a place where “newbies” come to live, and while they may have a rough start, the “messy garden” (or melting pot) is a place where all can grow together. Yet Red also sees that dangers exist within that garden and that being a passive observer as she has been is no longer acceptable. At some point, you have to act, to speak up, to save your neighborhood.
Red’s and Samar’s stories are woven together beautifully, and we see that Samar and her family are not the only ones at risk in the neighborhood. Will anyone have the courage to speak up? Does anyone remember the history of the neighborhood and all that has happened there? This is obviously a story that can be read as a way of looking US history and our current situation where immigrants are threatened even though we have, with pride, called our nation a melting pot.
…sometimes things happen that aren’t so good. When they occur, I’ve learned that there’s not much you can do except stand tall and reach deep.
I hope this story inspires its young readers to do just that — stand tall and reach deep whenever you see a neighbor in need and the forces of hatred creeping into your neighborhood. It’s a wonderful story with a timely message, perfect for young readers and for families to read together.