Book Cover

Dr. Jane Goodall

Amor, age 14

Dr. Maggie Rizzi

A review by Dr. Maggie Rizzi, newly retired Superintendent of Schools

The Water Tree Way by Ruth Mendelson is a delightful adventure story, primarily written for children, but like so many of the best children’s books, there is a great deal here for adults as well. It is a bold and deep story full of wonder and action on the surface, and some of the most profound lessons of the ages beautifully nestled beneath.

The hero of the tale is a brave, energetic, curious ten year old girl named Jai (pronounced Jay). Like some of the most beloved children’s stories that have come before, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter come to mind, it straddles both what we consider the ‘real’ world and some fantastical elements that take the reader into the worlds of inner life and greater truths. Like the mythic Hero’s Journey, articulated by Joseph Campbell, our protagonist accepts the call to leave her everyday life and embark on a great adventure, from which she returns with a gift for her community. Ms. Mendelson has sure handedly rendered this both entirely accessible and lots of fun for young readers, and older ones alike.

After meeting Jai in her ordinary world, we are soon taken to the magical Water Tree Grove, where Jai is invited to pick a leaf which will guide her on her adventure. It turns out to be no ordinary leaf, as among other things, it transforms itself into a variety of different birds to help her at important stages of the journey.

As Frodo does on his epic journey, and Dorothy does in Oz, Jai meets a number of characters along the way, each captivating, and each contributing a bit of knowledge or wisdom, both to her, and to us, the readers.

The adventure itself is exciting, fun, hair raising at times, a real page turner, as they say. It is also original, imaginative, visually rich, and full of wonder and unexpected surprises.

This in and of itself makes any book worth reading, entertaining and fun. Having said that, there is something else going on here as well, something more rare, and very important. What separates a nice book from one that is profound occurs on the level of meaning.

What Ms. Mendelson has managed to achieve here is an accessible tapping of what Deepak Chopra calls ‘the world’s great wisdom traditions.’ The solace for those who have experienced loss, the lessons of courage in the face of inevitable fear, the portrait of a deep and meaningful friendship between a girl and a boy are important. But beyond these are some topics that many writers avoid because the wisdom to tackle them is rare, even among adults. The clear assertion that there are consequences to our actions, some of which can cause powerful long term damage, is beautifully coupled with reliable and reassuring ways to repair and redeem them.

Perhaps the most important life lesson, and one most sorely needed in our time, is the unambiguous rejection of revenge, and the inevitable cycle of exponential destruction that it causes, up to and including some of the world’s most protracted wars. There is no sugar coating here, but there is an elegant path to the only viable choices for the peace and safety of the world. And yes, all done in a way that is enjoyable, understandable and nurturing. No mean feat in any genre.

During the 1960’s and early 70’s, the Manhattanville Music Curriculum Project developed a series of materials to reform music education based on the premise that high quality, if challenging, material is a far better way to teach children, respecting their intelligence and ability to engage, than easier, lower quality stuff written ‘for their level.’ It worked like a charm. As an educator I have found that this premise holds true in all other subject areas as well. So with that as a guiding principle when choosing books to add to a Reading or ELA curriculum, here is an example of a book that offers children highly sophisticated lessons that they can truly take through life, deeply respecting their ability to understand. Additionally, in a time when we are seeking ways to teach values and grounding truths to children, this book provides a multidimensional approach that is entirely without any religious implications that would be problematic. At the same time it is a fun, exciting adventure that can be enjoyed on that level alone. Now that’s magic for you.

Marguerite C. Rizzi, EdD, is a writer, musician and educator based in Rhode Island. Her work of telling the stories of unknown heroes began with her dissertation, and continues in the documentary medium. Dr. Rizzi writes screen plays aimed at making the world a better place. She brings live improvisational music to the community as a performer and producer. After teaching numerous subjects at Boston University and the high school level, Dr. Rizzi served as a Special Education Director, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, and most recently for 10 years as a Superintendent of Schools in a large suburban school district. Her credits include several Grammy listed albums, academic articles, book reviews, and the documentary film, "American Hero."