When I visit with the grandchildren, a beloved ritual is reading a story before bedtime. The musicality of words floating into the ear and going into the mind becomes an arrow that pierces the heart. It always happens that way.
This Thanksgiving I brought along plenty of books to read aloud. I also brought a new book to read. Not a read-aloud for the children, but a book for me. I never expected what would happen next.
The children were camping out and snuggled in sleeping bags in the bedroom. It was fun, but didn’t lend itself to seeing the pictures in a picture book. I thought I would read to them a little of my book, Wishtree by Katherine Applegate (the author of the award-winning book The One and Only Ivan). I hadn’t read the book, so we were all jumping into something new.
What started as one night of bedtime reading became the focus of our holiday together. The book is outstanding. It plucks at every scintilla. There is no stopping, as the storyline keeps going. So, we had to keep going. We read the next day, and the next night, and so on, until we finished the book. 211 pages. Just like chapter reading in my classroom at school, I was reading aloud with no pictures. The big difference was reading the book in only a few days. Somehow, that made reading more exciting. Breathless. Heart pounding.
Red is an oak tree with two hundred and sixteen rings. He’s been around a long time, and he tells the story. He’s a Wishtree, with a long and honorable history. On the first day of May it’s been a tradition for people to put wishes on his tree, written on paper or cloth and tied to his branches. Sometimes those wishes are also whispered to Red. He talks about his neighborhood:
Different languages, different food, different customs. That’s our neighborhood: wild and tangled and colorful. Like the best kind of garden.
Red talks about himself and people:
For a tree, communication is just as complicated and miraculous as it is for humans. In a mysterious dance of sunlight and sugar, water and wind and soil, we build invisible bridges to connect with the world.
Can you imagine reading those sentences to children? I had to stop. My grandchildren said not a word. Words were not necessary because Red had said them all. We were humbled. Spellbound.
The story is centered on two children in the neighborhood, Samar and Stephen, the host of animal families who live in Red’s tree, and Francesca, whose family has owned Red for centuries. It is history and uncovering the past, diversity and acceptance both then and now, friendship, nature, understanding, and great adventure. Oh yes, adventure. My grandchildren and I fell in love with Bongo the bird, Red’s best friend. Lewis and Clark are cats, FreshBakedBread is the mama skunk, and on and on, with animals who are the supporting characters in this book.
When someone carves LEAVE on Red, the plot thickens. This becomes sleuth work. The stories of the children, and Francesca’s past, and also Red’s past come together. It is captivating. The message it sends is a beacon of hope and promise.
Like Red, I’ve been around a long time. I know the best. And, this is one of the best.