Wishtree: Lessons in Kindness from a Talking Tree

Posted January 07, 2019  | Written by PJOW Parent


When I first saw Wishtree by Katherine Applegate on my daughters’ summer reading list, I thought it was an odd choice. Why would a Jewish day school select a book about a talking tree?
When I learned that PJ Our Way had selected Wishtree as well, I decided to check it out. I read it straight through one evening after my daughters were in bed. I read it to them the next day as soon as they got home from school.
The girls may or may not have had cereal for dinner that night so I could keep reading instead of cooking them a real meal. Ahem.
Wishtree is the story of Red, a 216-year-old Northern Red Oak living in a diverse suburban neighborhood. His best friend, Bongo, is a crow, and a variety of critters, including opossums, skunks, raccoons, and owls, live in and around Red. Red is also a wishtree, and on the first of May each year, people from the community leave their wishes on him.
10-year-old Samar, whose family recently moved in, is quiet and gentle, and she often visits Red at night, sitting under the moonlight until the baby animals come to sit with her. One night, she ties her own wish to Red’s branch; she wishes for a friend.
This is not an easy wish, as Samar’s family is Muslim and they are not welcomed by everyone in the neighborhood. After a young man carves the word “LEAVE” into Red’s trunk with a screwdriver, Samar’s parents think about moving away. This is when Red and Bongo decide it’s time to take action and kindle a friendship between Samar and Stephen, the boy who lives next door.
The ensuing story is one that spoke to me deeply, not only as a mother who was once a child, but also a Jew and the granddaughter of an immigrant who was not welcomed by the community when she first moved to this country.
Although this is presumably the story of a tree, it is also a story of friendship, family, community, heritage, immigration, and the power of words to create and connect, to divide and destroy.
Fundamentally, though, this is a story of the power of kindness, and what happens when a community comes together in response to hatred and xenophobia. It’s a story about how hard it can feel to connect with someone we don’t know, someone who seems so different from us, and how important it is to keep trying anyway.
As I read this book, I thought about b’tzetelm elohim, the idea that all creatures are created in God’s image. How would our lives— from the significant decisions we make about where to live, who to vote for, and how to spend our valuable time and money, to the seemingly small details of how we greet a stranger, respond to a person in need, and what books and tv shows we share with our children— differ if we truly believed that every being on earth carries a spark of Godliness within them? And perhaps more importantly, how do we continue to hold on to that truth in the face of seemingly constant reminders to the contrary?
Fortunately, it’s doesn’t always have to be as hard as we grown-ups make it out to be, and there is much to be learned from the story of a wishtree. Perhaps the first step is to remember that as we consider b’tzelem elohim, we must include ourselves. The awareness of our own Godliness doesn’t come easily or naturally to most of us, as we have a front-row seat to all of our own flaws and shortcomings. As Red observes while watching Bongo gleefully annoy the school children (who in turn enjoyed letting her annoy them), “It is a great gift indeed to love who you are.”
Self-acceptance is the foundation that allows us to reach out to others. This next step, acknowledging the Godliness in others, doesn’t have to be as significant of an overture as we see towards the end of Wishtree (although those are nice when they happen). It can be a smile, a greeting, a door held open, an invitation to share a park bench. For even a crow knows that kindness can start with something as simple as getting together, doing something, yakking, and sharing a laugh. Most importantly, though, we don’t have to do any of this alone; as Red reminds us, we all “need a vast network of roots. And roots can be surprisingly strong.”
About Carla
Carla Naumburg, PhD, LICSW is a parent coach, writer, and speaker. She is the author of three parenting books, including the forthcoming How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids (Workman, 2019). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and Mindful Magazine, among other places. Carla is a consultant for PJ Our Way, and she lives outside of Boston with her husband, two daughters, and two totally insane cats.
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