If you found a fairy or a magic lamp, a clever gold coin or a powerful ring that would grant you three wishes, what would they be?
What is revealed about us by our answers? What are our pipe dreams? Our secret hopes? Our wildest longings? Is our wish for ourselves or for another? Is it extravagant? Simple? Fanciful? Or painfully real — a cure; a reconciliation; a home.
The girls in the two middle-grade novels I have for you today are both mightily wishing for first one thing and then another. Their lives look entirely different, yet in both of their tremendous, touching stories we meet children in broken circumstances whose deepest longings are strikingly similar.
The most amazing thing about the two stories is how plausible it is that we’ve met these children — under different names and in other locations — without ever being aware of it. Read their stories and expand your awareness of the desperate need for love and peace in our fractured world.
Wish, by Barbara O’Connor published in 2016 by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers
Charlie Reese, fifth-grader, is one unhappy camper. She’s stuck in Colby, North Carolina, a podunk, hillbilly place if ever there was one, feeling like she’s been “tossed out on the side of the road like a sack of unwanted kittens.”
Back in Raleigh, where she ought to be, her dad, Scrappy, has been caught fighting one too many times and landed himself in jail. Mama, meanwhile, has taken to spending her days in bed, overcome with dysfunction to the point that social services has stepped in and removed Charlie. Her older sister, Jackie, the light of Charlie’s life, is allowed to remain in Raleigh since she’s shortly graduating from high school.
So Charlie has been bucketed off, alone, to this lame excuse for a town to live with her relatives, Gus and Bertha.
Charlie knows about a hundred ways to make a wish. Lucky pennies. First stars of the evening. Shaking your fist three times at a black horse. There’s an entire canon of wishing protocol. And Charlie uses every angle to make the very same wish, every day. She’s been at it for quite some time now.
What is Charlie wishing for? What’s your guess?
This girl is all scrap and hot temper and skepticism on the outside, bluster meant to shield the hurting, forlorn soul tucked away inside. Gus and Bertha aren’t easily fooled, however. Neither is a neighbor boy named Howard. Nor the stray dog Charlie rescues, Wishbone. Maybe the person most unaware is Charlie herself.
As Charlie goes along, scornful of the folk around her yet intrigued by their peace and comfort, scratching like a wildcat at folks that come near yet pouring out her secrets to them the next minute, begging her sister to let her come home yet suddenly unsure of what awaits her there — her mask slips enough for her to see into her own heart and discover the surprising answer to that long series of wishes.
It’s a tremendous, poignant, heartwarming story, completely devoid of sappiness. Charlie’s voice is delightfully rough and tender, and the characters of Gus and Bertha embody the welcome, patience, grace, and understanding that we all long for. A beautiful read for ages 9 and up.
The Seventh Wish, by Kate Messner published in 2016 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
If I told you this honest, meaningful book combines Irish dance, ice fishing, a magic fish, and heroin addiction…would that be enough right there to sell you? Or would you think it sounds like a hot mess? I can hardly believe Messner managed that incongruous combination without everything flying out of control, but she did. This is the masterful work of a talented author.
Strangely enough, the main character in this novel is also the younger-of-two-sisters and is also named Charlie! Charlie Brennan. There the comparisons stop, however, because this Charlie is firmly planted in a solid, stable, middle-class family, surrounded by friends, in a small, pleasant town on the shores of Lake Champlain. Her life is rosy.
Thus, when Charlie happens across a magical, talking, wish-granting fish — just go with it — her thoughts do not gravitate to the serious concerns of Charlie Reese in Colby, North Carolina. This Charlie is thinking about cute boys and especially about buying a new, sparkly solo dress for her Irish dance competitions. Solid, middle-school stuff. In fact, earning money by catching fish is the only thing that gets Charlie out onto the ice with all its strange, wintertime pinging and booming, where she meets that fish-of-her-dreams.
This magical fish is extremely literal in its interpretation of Charlie’s wishes, which causes quite a bit of trouble for her and the others involved in her scheming. But when real, honest, stomach-turning, mind-reeling trouble crashes in on Charlie’s family — when her beloved older sister lands in a treatment center for heroin addiction — that’s when Charlie realizes just how flimsy wishing can be.
This is such a stunning novel, exploring the impact of addiction on other members of a family. Charlie’s authentic responses — the anger, shock, sense of loss, and shame — course through her right along with her love for her sister. The intense sadness. Resentment over the enormous, unfair burden this addiction places on Charlie’s shoulders. Feelings of betrayal. And the tough mindsets she must learn — courage, patience, peace, boundaries.
Yes, without that Irish jigging, that weird, magical fish, a crazy word game Charlie’s family plays, the wise love of an older neighbor who has faced these things herself — without these sunny elements, this book would be too heartbreaking. As it is, Messner has balanced things gorgeously, allowing us to groan with Charlie over this devastating new normal, yet with a ray of hope.
For siblings who have walked Charlie’s path, for one reason or another, this is an especially helpful read, but I’d recommend it to anyone ages 11 and up.