Tree Musketeers, a middle-grade novel by accomplished West Coast writer Norma Charles (Runner: Harry Jerome, World’s Fastest Man), is a universal fish-out-of-water story.
Jeanie is new at school, having just moved to Van City from the Prairies. She’s shy, unsure of herself, and embarrassed by her ill-suited cold-weather parka. As she’s struggling to make new friends, Jeanie feels overwhelmed by self-doubt. Will she be picked last for the volleyball team? Should she go out for the school play or will she die of stage fright?
In a neighbourhood evergreen tree, Jeanie finds solace – and potential friends. She overcomes her fear of heights to prove her mettle to the Tree Climbers Club – a group of students, led by cool-kid Isabelle, who hang out in the swaying branches inspecting birds’ nests and admiring the view. But just as Jeanie begins to fit in, she finds out this awe-inspiring tree is in danger. Her land-developer uncle is planning construction on the site. Jeanie must speak up and push back against family and grown-ups to protect the tree.
Charles takes us on Jeanie’s emotionally authentic journey in this well-paced novel. Free from contemporary technological and pop-culture references, the story offers the timeless experience of trying to fit in and yearning to belong. Jeanie’s inner monologue stays true to middle-grade anxieties and readers will relate to her feelings of uncertainty.
There are some concerns though. Parents may take issue with dialogue that resembles bullying but goes unchecked. And the story doesn’t address the fact that Jeanie’s efforts to make friends and her motivations for activism often come across as desperate – especially when she worries that bossy Isabelle won’t speak to her again if she can’t save the tree. Also, when these tweens break into the 18th-century rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” this contemporary story seems quite old-fashioned and twee.
Despite these concerns, Tree Musketeers is successful portrait of kid-sized eco-warriors and finding one’s voice – a homespun tale of triumph with a touch of socially responsible charm.