When Melinda starts the ninth grade at Merryweather High School, she is trying to deal with a terrible secret. She doesn't fit in with any of her old friends. She hates her classes; the only class she likes is art, and when she gets the project for the year, she has to draw a tree. At first first she thinks it won't be hard to draw a tree, but the more she tries to do it, the more she realizes it is harder than she thinks. As she spends the school year trying to cope with what happened to her, Melinda realizes she has no voice in what happened. Melinda's art teacher, Mr. Freeman, is one of the people who helps Melinda in drawing her tree.
"Art without emotion is like chocolate cake without sugar. It makes you gag." He sticks his finger down his throat. "The next time you work on your trees, don't think about trees. Think about love, or hate, or joy, or rage, whatever makes you feel something, makes your palms sweat or your toes curl. Focus on that feeling. When people don't express themselves, they die one piece at a time. You'd be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside-walking through their days with no idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a Mack truck to come along and finish the job. It's the saddest thing I know."
Melinda's former friend, Ivy, is another person who helps her. Although the two girls have drifted apart, as the story goes on, they slowly find their way back to one another.
"You're better than you think you are," Ivy says. She opens to an empty page in the sketchbook. "I don't know why you keep using linoleum block. If I were you, I'd just let it out, draw. Here-try a tree." We sit there trading pencils. I draw a trunk, Ivy adds a branch, I extend the branch, but it is too long and spindly. I start to erase it, but Ivy stops me. "It"s fines the way it is, it just needs some leaves. Layer the leaves and make them slightly different sizes and it will look great. You have a great start there."
The most important person is Melinda herself. When Melinda finally admits what happened to her and finds her voice, it breaks down all of the walls and Melinda is able to create the tree Mr. Freeman and Ivy knew she could create all along.