Red has lived in his town for many generations—two hundred and sixteen rings, as a matter of fact. He is a red oak tree, and every Wishing Day, all the townspeople come out to cover his branches with scraps of paper or cloth onto which they’ve written their dearest wishes. His limbs and hollows are home to many creatures, including squirrels, opossums, and his crow friend, Bongo. One night, a boy sneaks up to Red and carves into his bark one word that sets the townspeople astir: LEAVE.
The word is directed at the new girl, Samar, and her family. Red and Bongo have come to know Samar as a gentle, quiet girl, and they’ve cooked up all kinds of crazy schemes to get Stephen, the boy next door, to befriend her. Before they can achieve happiness in the neighborhood, though, the owner of the property decides that she has to cut Red down. She just can’t stand to see the hateful word any longer.
Applegate is the author of the award-winning The One and Only Ivan, and she brings that same gift for animal tales to this new novel for elementary-age readers. The sweetness and humor of the writing both ease and highlight the serious and poignant theme. All skunks, for example, are named after smells, such as RosePetal and HotButteredPopcorn. The possums are called by their greatest fears, such as BigHairySpiders and Flashlight. Poor Flashlight wants to help, but he has a hard time controlling his “play dead” instinct. Red speaks in platitudes much of the time, since he is supposed to be dispensing the wisdom of the ages, and although Bongo acts exasperated with him, at the end, she admits that it is endearing. While the wild creatures continue with their busy lives, the injustice of the hatred aimed at Samar’s family and the destruction of this ancient tree move toward a dreaded conclusion.
This novel is a wonderful starting point for discussions of tolerance and kindness on a child’s level. Applegate brings children (and this reader) to the brink of what they can bear emotionally, but—spoiler alert!— they will not be traumatized by the ending. A colleague of mine used this story as a family read-aloud with wonderful results, except that Mom sometimes had a hard time reading. Other families and classrooms can use the book as a non-threatening way to deal with differences while children are still young enough to be open in their minds and hearts.
Very highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.