Twelve-year-old Julian Carter-Li, whose father died five years ago, is stuck spending the summer with his aunt and uncle while his mother is traveling through China photographing Buddhist temples. He’s not forced to live in a cupboard beneath the stairs, but Julian’s Uncle Sibley and Aunt Daphne are as thrilled to be caring for him as Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia are to have Harry Potter in their home. (In case you’ve haven’t read any Harry Potter, this means they were neither happy nor gracious hosts.) While waiting in his uncle’s office, Julian can’t resist looking at the computer screen left on and open to his uncle’s email. This invasion of privacy leads him to discover two emails, one outlining his host’s plans to ship him off to a summer math camp to get him out of their hair, and the other an angry response to Sibley’s company’s plans to cut down and sell a stand of ancient redwood trees, written by a young girl, Robin Elder. Julian and his good friend Danny are so intrigued by Robin’s email that they respond to her, setting off a wild chain of events, including a daring plan to save Julian from math camp and the redwood trees from destruction. In the process, Julian and his friends become environmental activists, living in a tree house high up in a redwood to stand up to Sibley’s corporate greed. Operation Redwood will make a great read-aloud, affirming for students that although there are consequences for every decision they make, it’s important to stand up for what they believe in.
In the Classroom
- Be sure to share the Author’s Note, pages 347-350. As the author states, the book is fictional but inspired by the real-life efforts of individuals and groups to protect California’s redwoods. This could lead to researching and writing about key people, groups, events specific to California or to finding out about environmental struggles in their own locale.
- Danny, a budding journalist, writes a fake press release as part of their plans to save the trees. The release, supposedly an announcement from IPX, Sibley’s company, about their new plans to protect the redwood trees rather than log them, is printed in the newspaper but their plan backfires. Students could search newspapers for press releases from corporations, government offices, volunteer organizations, etc. They could practice writing their own about classroom or school events. This would a great opportunity to talk about the importance of matching voice to the writing’s purpose and audience.
- On pages 31-33 Danny writes an email to Robin pretending he is Julian. The author doesn’t use the word “voice,” but Danny’s writing just doesn’t sound like Julian. Julian revises the email, using his own “voice.” Ask students to describe the “voice” of each email. What did Julian change to make the message his own?
- There are several back and forth email exchanges between Julian, Danny, and Robin (e.g. chapters four, seven, and twenty). Ask students to describe the writing voices of each character. You could even give them one of the emails without a signature and see if they can identify the writer based on their voice descriptions.
- In the story, Julian experiences many “firsts” for a kid from the city—seeing a deer, milking a goat, climbing a tree, using woodworking tools, etc. Ask your students to write about a similar experience. Maybe they will come at this from a different perspective—growing up in a rural area and experiencing city/urban things. (Check out page 118 for Julian’s thoughts about how far he had traveled—and not just in terms of time or distance.)
- Julian describes seeing the redwood trees for the first time on pages 99-100. He is awestruck by the sight. Perhaps your students have had a similar moment, seeing something in nature or visiting a place they had only read about. (Try http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/redwoods/redwoods
to help students understand Julian’s feelings of amazement.)
- Robin tells Julian about “mental snapshots”—the way she helps herself remember every detail about a moment she doesn’t want to forget. After reviewing Robin’s strategy, you and your students could try this out, first about a moment from your school day, then about something outside of school. The resulting writing could be in the form of poetry, a descriptive paragraph, or a journal entry.
- Since big chunks of this story are written in emails, let your own imagination lead you to activities around email etiquette, privacy protocols, etc. Telling a story in email correspondence might also be something fun to try.
- Make sure you point out to students the graphic rhododendron leaves creeping in from the bottom of each page and at the top of each new chapter. This element of presentation is a simple and effective way to keep readers thinking about the book’s forest setting.
- Connected and recommended: The Naked Mole-Rat Letters by Mary Amato, a novel written in emails, diary entries, and letters, and Redwoods by Jason Chin, a non-fiction picture book that immerses readers in a forest of gigantic redwoods.