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Katherine Applegate reads the news—and then she writes magical, heartrending, magnificent, and funny tales spurred by some of the stories she’s come across. Her wonderful Newbery-winning novel, The One and Only Ivan, came about after she read a harrowing account of a gorilla and his life at a shopping mall zoo. In her newest release, wishtree, whose main characters are Red, an ancient red oak tree; the tree’s best friend, Bongo, a crow; and two kids grappling with prejudice, the news once again played a role.
“I’d been reading far too many stories about communities torn apart by hate crimes, and I decided to write about the topic,” says Applegate. “I wanted the novel to be accessible to very young readers, a tale that would prompt them to ask that most important question: ‘Why is this person being treated unkindly?’”
The author chose to tell the story in wishtree through nonhuman characters because “it’s easier to view humans through a nonhuman lens—the absurdity of our behavior shines through.”
Q | In all of your books, even in the direst sections, there’s humor. Can you talk about the importance of humor in children’s literature?
A | A wise person once told me that you can either view life as a comedy or as a tragedy. Of course, it’s not always that binary, but in stories, as in life, humor makes it possible to work through tough issues. When you’re tackling dark or complicated conversations with a child, whether you’re a teacher or a parent, humor allows you to say: Hey, it’s going to be okay.
I know that when I’m bummed out, I turn to Veep and not to House of Cards. And I’m pretty sure that the only way teachers survive parent-teacher meetings is with a healthy dose of humor (and, perhaps, some post-work chocolate)!
Q | Unlikely friendships are another theme found in both wishtree and Ivan. Are you captivated by the idea of these friendships?
A | Yep. I admit I’m a sucker for those unlikely friendship–type [stories], the ones that feature photos of cuddling, unusual couples: Koko the gorilla and All Ball the kitten. Owen the hippo and Mzee the tortoise. Michelle Obama and George Bush.
I’ve always loved the idea of unusual friendships and surprising families. After all, when we grow up, we choose our new families, weaving them into beautiful new tapestries. The same is true of our friends. The connections we make can crop up in the most unusual ways—a chance encounter, a shared problem, a long delay at the airport. Exploring those connections is one of the best parts of writing.
Q | In your work, gratefulness and acceptance of one’s fate comes through strongly, yet at crucial points, your characters act not to save themselves but others.
A | It’s a complicated message, I suppose. Accepting that there are parts of life we can’t control is a tough but vital lesson. It’s equally important, though, to acknowledge all the things we have to be grateful for each and every day. You can be accepting and grateful without being passive, however.
It’s so important kids realize they don’t have to be bystanders in life, that cruelty must be countered with kindness, and ignorance with knowledge.
Q | Were you a huge animal lover as a child? What sort of research did you do on animals to develop your characters? Did you research legends or lore on trees?
A | I am such an animal person. If I walk into a cocktail party, I’m the person who heads for the nearest mutt and ignores the humans. I worked for a veterinarian in high school and thought I wanted to be a vet (until I actually worked for one!).
I love doing research about animals. Crows are absolutely amazing birds. I highly recommend Pamela Turner’s Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird (Scientists in the Field series), both for adults and kids. Crows are brilliant, wily, and often hilarious.
I deliberately chose a common bird like the crow for wishtree (although Bongo might disagree with my use of the word common), one that kids would encounter in their daily lives.
I was a little worried about featuring a main character who’s a tree (even having done a gorilla in The One and Only Ivan and a Cinnabon-loving alien in Animorphs), but then I thought about all the literary trees in kid lit. The Giving Tree. The Whomping Willow. The Ents. Once you get started, there are lots to choose from. Again, I chose a common tree, a red oak, that would be easy to spot in many neighborhoods.
Q | If you were an animal (or other nonhuman living thing, like Red, the tree in wishtree), what would you be? What traits would you hope to have?
A | Oh, it’s such a cliché, but I would have to go with your garden-variety dog. They’re so relentlessly upbeat. So silly. So unselfconscious. I wanna be like that.
Q | Do kids you have met at readings have a hard time with some of the sadder aspects of your stories?
A | Invariably, a kid will yell (spoiler alert), “Why did you have to kill Stella?” And I still get 20-somethings at signings who are mad at me about a character I killed off in Animorphs. I always explain that fiction is about change, and change is often painful. But they still don’t forgive me.
Touring for Crenshaw was interesting, because sometimes I would visit incredibly affluent private schools, other times, struggling Title I schools. But no matter the school, I found kids to be equally compassionate, and truly concerned about fairness in our society. And it was a great privilege to be able to tell the story of kids who came from a working-poor family, one that was loving and decent, but just having a tough time making ends meet.
Q | Are you, at heart, an optimist?
A | I’m a closet optimist. I’ll joke about dark stuff and fret endlessly about the state of the world. But at the end of the day, I place great faith in the decency of most folks, and in the idealism of our children. In the grand comedy versus tragedy debate, I come down squarely on the side of comedy.
Photo: Erica Yoon/NPR