Author: Katherine Applegate
Artist: Charles Santoso
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: October 2017
“We grow as we must grow, as our seeds decided long ago,” goes one clever aphorism delivered by the protagonist of this book, who happens to be a red oak tree named, you guessed it, Red. (The other talking species in this book all have their own unique naming conventions.) Thankfully, the book isn’t cluttered with an overabundance of wise sayings, and Red is generally matter-of-fact and clear-headed (clear-branched?). Whenever Red gets a little too lofty in speech, Bongo the crow (crows are named after interesting sounds) warns, “Too much Wise Old Tree.” Red also has the bad habit of explaining jokes.
Red and Bongo are the central characters, but are surrounded by a rather large supporting cast of creatures, considering how brief the book is. The primary human element comes from Samar and Stephen; she’s new to the area and gets harassed for being a minority, and he is the shy neighbor. Red, a tree that people tie wishes to once per year, uses the presence of Samar and Stephen to deliver a story of longing, hope, acceptance, neighborliness, history, and the daily struggles of life. The book could potentially lean too far into whimsy, so Applegate injects her subtle melancholy throughout the pages. The drama isn’t as inherently depressing as that in The One and Only Ivan, and ultimately it remains an uplifting tale. Like that book, the reading experience is enhanced by the artwork throughout, this time delivered by Charles Santoso with a healthy flurry of falling leaves spread across the quick chapters.
There’s no harm in writing a book that urges life lessons, and this charming story does a worthwhile job in helping us cope with reality:
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.
We all need a little Wise Old Tree from time to time.