47 pages 1 hour read

Lisa Graff

The Great Treehouse War

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


The Great Treehouse War is a 2017 middle grade fiction novel by popular children’s author Lisa Graff. In this novel, Winnie Malladi-Maraj stages a stand-off against her recently divorced parents when their constant bickering threatens to prevent her from passing the fifth grade. Framed as a collective memoir combining the experiences of Winnie and her friends, the novel explores family dynamics and advocating for one’s needs. The text features illustrations and “sticky notes” from the characters that function as commentary from Winnie’s friends.

Winnie’s parents have never been what she’d call “normal.” Locked in constant competition with one another, they are more focused on their achievements than their relationship with her daughter; the one thing Winnie can count on from them is incessant conflict. Their competition carries over into their custody arrangement after they divorce: To ensure things remain exactly even between them, Winnie’s parents decide that she will spend three days a week with each of them—the seventh she will spend on her own in a treehouse situated exactly halfway between each of their properties. Winnie begins to value these days alone in her treehouse as her parents’ increasingly extreme behavior monopolizes the rest of her life. When their behavior threatens to cause Winnie to flunk fifth grade, she climbs into her treehouse and refuses to come down until her parents agree to listen to her. Winnie’s friends join her to protest grievances against their own parents, and thus begins the Great Treehouse War—kids against parents, and the whole world watching to see who will break first. With the support of Buttons, the world’s greatest cat, and her friends, Winnie ultimately learns how to stand up for her needs and navigate complex family dynamics. 

This guide references the Philomel Books 2017 hardcover edition.

Content Warning: The text depicts themes of parental separation and divorce; feelings of confusion and abandonment related to family changes; conflicts with authority figures; and moments of tension and emotional distress.

Plot Summary

Winnifred “Winnie” Malladi-Maraj arrives home on her last day of fourth grade to the news that her parents are divorcing. Throughout the conversation, Winnie’s parents ignore her and argue with one another, which Winnie feels is typical behavior for them. They reassure her that their plan for life after divorce will ensure things remain “equal” between them: They want Winnie to spend three days a week with each of them, and one day a week alone in a treehouse situated exactly halfway between their two properties. When Winnie slips from the room entirely unnoticed after another argument breaks out between her parents, she thinks that one day a week entirely to herself doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

The action jumps forward a year, with Winnie at the end of fifth grade. Her dynamic with her parents has further devolved in that time: When Winnie’s mom realizes that their arrangement means that Winnie’s dad will always have Winnie for Thanksgiving, she is determined to find a holiday that will surpass it. Winnie’s parents war for who can create the biggest celebration for any niche holiday they can find, resulting in Winnie celebrating a holiday every single day, each more ridiculous than the last. Consequently, she has no time left over for schoolwork or studying for tests. Wednesdays—the one day a week she spends alone in her treehouse—are her safe haven: On Wednesdays, Winnie has the time to pursue her own interests such as art, work on her schoolwork, or snuggle with her supportive cat, Buttons.

However, it’s still not enough to keep Winnie afloat at school. Her teacher, Mr. Benetto, informs her that she is in danger of failing the year. He gives her the opportunity to make up her failed grades if she can turn in an A+ worthy local history report for the final assignment of the year. Winnie confides in her friends and they encourage her to confront her parents about how their actions have been impacting her grades. When Winnie attempts to discuss her concerns with her father, however, he ignores her; instead, he tells her that she’s going to be spending the entire summer in the field with him, assisting in his research on bird feces.

To make up for the days that Winnie will miss with her mom while she is in the field with her dad, Winnie’s mom suggests that Winnie spend every Wednesday from now until next March with her. When neither of her parents listen to Winnie’s protests, she realizes that her parents do not care about her needs at all. Winnie nearly despairs over the situation, but then she learns that her treehouse was built on the site of the consulate of the now-defunct Republic of Fittizio. Because it was built on consulate ground, her treehouse may not technically be on US soil. This means that when she’s in her treehouse, Winnie doesn’t have to obey any US laws—including the ones that say she has to obey her parents. Winnie climbs into her treehouse and refuses to come down until her parents agree to come up and speak with her, both at the same time.

Winnie’s friends join her to protest their own grievances against their parents. They write a collective list of demands and refuse to come down until their parents meet their requests. Winnie and her friends, dubbed the “Treehouse Ten,” become a news sensation with parents and children all over the world watching to see how the situation will turn out. At first, Winnie feels like she’s at the world’s greatest slumber party, but after 12 days stuck inside together, tensions run high among Winnie’s friends, and they eventually argue over how best to get their parents to meet their demands. Unable to agree, they split into two separate factions with Winnie isolated. Feeling like she’s caught in the middle between her parents all over again, Winnie turns to Uncle Huck, the one supportive adult in her life, for guidance.

Uncle Huck helps Winnie see what she needs to do to resolve the situation. Winnie uses her “Artist Vision,” which allows her to notice details and observe people more closely, to realize that her friends’ grievances with their parents are about more than just wanting to be allowed to watch a TV show or escape grounding. Winnie secretly reaches out to her friends’ parents and helps them all come to a happy resolution until eventually it’s just Winnie left alone in her treehouse. When she learns that a historian has found a loophole in consulate law that means that her treehouse is on US soil, Winnie realizes that she’ll have to force her parents up there herself. 

She tricks her parents into meeting her at the treehouse, both at the same time. Winnie asserts herself and communicates what she wants and needs to her parents. Her parents finally listen to her and Winnie ends her treehouse siege. At the novel’s conclusion, Winnie and her friends plan a “Treehouse Ten” slumber party reunion in the treehouse. Winnie intends to turn the treehouse into a museum that all kids can come and enjoy. Her parents support her and demonstrate a changed ability to consider and respect her needs. Winnie ends the novel glad, for once, that her parents are her parents.