Book Review: Willodeen by Katherine Applegate

Katherine Applegate’s Willodeen, out today from Feiwel and Friends, aptly begins with an epigraph quoting Greta Thunberg: “I have learned you are never too small to make a difference.”  This middle-grade novel geared towards tweens, but also appropriate for younger readers, explores surprisingly mature topics in a way that is still accessible and engaging for kids: animal rights, environmental activism, climate catastrophes, ecotourism, and speciesism are all addressed in a book that balances serious themes with an imaginative playfulness, a sense of hope, and beautifully moving illustrations by Charles Santoso.

Climate catastrophe, ecotourism, and speciesism are all central themes in Willodeen. Protagonist Willodeen, a young girl who celebrates her eleventh birthday early in the book, was taken in years before by two older women, Birdie and Mae, after losing her entire family in the Great September Fire, one of many fires—along with other natural disasters, including mudslides and droughts—that have ravaged the village of Perchance in recent years. Willodeen is traumatized by her near-death experience in that fire and the loss of her loved ones, frequently awaking from terrible nightmares about the devastating event.

In waking hours, things are also hard for Willodeen, who worries constantly not just about fires, but the other ways she sees the planet and its creatures suffering. The book’s plot centers on two fictional creatures, the screecher and the hummingbear, and it is here that the themes of ecotourism and speciesism are explored. Both screechers and hummingbears are dearly beloved by Willodeen, but only one is so cherished by the rest of her community: hummingbears—tiny, flying bears whose annual migration through the village makes it a popular tourist attraction each fall—are the pride and joy of Perchance.  Screechers, on the other hand, with their intimidating claws; long, spiky tails; and nasty odor, have a bounty over their heads and are eagerly hunted. Both species are on the brink of extinction, seen in fewer and fewer numbers, but the villagers are concerned only with the disappearance of the loveable (and profitable) hummingbears. Screechers are noisy, smelly, ugly, and bothersome to tourists; as such, they are viewed by the community as useless pests that need to be exterminated. Only Willodeen is concerned about the disappearance of both screechers and hummingbears, recognizing each one’s inherent worth and vital role in the local ecosystem well before the adults in her village come to understand this. 

It is quite fitting, then, that Willodeen opens with a quotation from Thunberg.  The novel’s strong-willed, free-spirited protagonist is quite like 18-year-old Thunberg, sharing the Swedish activist’s long-standing commitment to advocating for the planet and demanding that adults take more responsibility for what they are doing to the earth. Throughout the novel, Willodeen gradually learns how to “do something useful with all that anger” she feels about the injustices around her. After she finds herself crying angry tears upon witnessing hunters kill yet another a screecher, Mae and Birdie tell her that anger of that sort can contain great power.  When Willodeen responds by asking what power she can possibly have when she is only an eleven-year-old child, they remind her that she is in an “eleven-year-old person,” one whose anger about the injustices in her community allows her to “see the world differently” from others around her, including many of the adults she knows.

Perhaps the most important theme in the book is that of finding one’s voice. Yet, almost equally important is its opposite: learning to listen, both to other perspectives and to the earth itself. For eleven-year-old Willodeen—quiet, introspective, keen on silence and solitude—learning to speak up on behalf of the voiceless is no easy feat, especially when it means speaking out against adults. But she bravely does just this to try to help the screechers, warning her elders not to “lose things before we get the chance to understand them. Screechers included.” For the adults in Willodeen’s community, on the other hand, the lesson to be learned is about listening—not just to outsiders like Willodeen, or to children like Willodeen and her friend Connor, but also to nature, which “knows more than we do,” and to the earth, which “‘has music for those who listen.’“ It is Willodeen’s impassioned commitment to listening to and observing nature, as well as her willingness to speak on its behalf, that ultimately saves her community, but this requires, too, that the adults in Perchance learn to listen to Willodeen. 

Through depictions of climate catastrophe, species extinction, and the grim impacts of ecotourism on local communities and ecosystems, Applegate offers her young audience an honest look at some of the grave environmental and ecological challenges facing them now and likely to face them in the future.  Yet Willodeen also offers its readers hope, inspiration, and even a model for activism.  Like Willodeen, like Thunberg, the young readers of this books are “n[ot] too small to make a difference.”

In addition to Willodeen, Applegate is the author of over two dozen books for children and young adults, many of which focus on animals and the natural world. Her novel The One and Only Ivan won the Newberry Medal and was adapted into a major motion picture by Disney.  Applegate’s other books include the middle-grade novels Wishtree, Crenshaw, The One and Only Bob, and the Endling series, and the picture books Ivan: A Gorilla’s True Story and The Buffalo Storm.

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