I always enjoy Kate Messner's books. They make me laugh and cry. I always make it a priority when a new one comes out. I followed the controversy that accompanied the release of The Seventh Wish closely. I reference that, because as someone who read all of Kate's blog posts (and the comments on them) before reading the book, I found my reading affected by it. That in turn will affect this review. I'm going to attempt to do it in two parts. What you can expect if you go into the book with no knowledge of said controversy, and what you can expect if you do. Either way, you are getting another excellent heartfelt book from a talented thoughtful writer.
Charlie is a seventh grader with a passion for Irish dancing, great friends, and a plan to earn more money to buy the best solo dancing dress she possibly can. She often feels the least important in her family. Her older sister Abby has always gotten a lot of attention because of stomach issues. Then it was her senior year and now she's off at college. Between her parents worrying about college tuition and working more, Charlie can feel lost in the shuffle. But she knows she has a good life and her problems aren't all that great. When she catches a magical fish that offers a wish if she sets it free, Charlie makes two hasty wishes just for fun. She is flabbergasted when they actually come true. Soon she is returning regularly to the lake to catch her fish and get more wishes for her friends and family. Some of the wishes have funny results. Some are not so funny, and Charlie learns to be careful with her words. Then something happens with her sister that no amount of careful wishing can fix no matter how hard Charlie tries.
Charlie. One thing I always really appreciate about Messner's books is the authenticity in the voices of her middle school characters. Charlie is a girl with a lot of enthusiasm. She has good friends, and she is a good friend in return. She has moments of resentment and jealousy, but for the most part she loves life and all the people who are in her small beautiful world full of ice flowers, Irish dancing, zany science projects, and freezing cold fishing on the lake. Her parents are truly wonderful and active too. Even when Charlie is feeling resentful toward them for their priorities taking over her dancing, she knows she is loved and cared for. The way Messner introduces and deals with their family tragedy is incredibly well done. For savvy adults (who don't know anything about the book but what is on the jacket flap), what is coming may seem obvious. I think it will knock a good many kids over with shock, which I think is part of the importance in what Messner was doing here. Because it knocks Charlie over with shock. Those kind of things aren't supposed to happen in her world. Messner handled the fallout sensitively, and Charlie was able to mourn, grieve, feel anger, guilt, and shame and still be Charlie. She still wanted to dance her heart out. She still wanted a space with her friends that had nothing to do with the turmoil in her family. In the end, this is a book full of hope, humor, love, and life, but with the reality that life doesn't always go the way we plan.
If you are looking for a book with a lot of family, friendship, dancing, and just a touch of magic, The Seventh Wish is exactly the right book for you.
Okay, now if you want to know my thoughts on the spoilery part of this book that caused the controversy keep reading. If not, click away.
Nearly halfway through the book Charlie's parents get a phone call from Abby's college. She is in the infirmary after being brought there by her roommates. She has admitted to them that the reason she can not breath properly is because she has been doing Heroin. That is what has caused people some upset. This is a very frank look at drug addiction and how it impacts a family, but it is handled appropriately for the target age audience. (Middle Grade-which in publisher speak means as young as 8 or 4th grade) Yes, I mean I firmly believe this is exactly a perfect book for 4th-6th graders. Abby's addiction is not explored in grotesque detail. What the reader sees is the impact that addiction has on her life and the lives of the people she loves. As I said above, a lot of kids will be floored because just like Charlie they don't think Heroin addiction is something a salutatorian, math and science whiz, athletic college girl is going to have a problem with. For other kids, this book is going to show them they are not alone. That there are other families out there suffering the same way their family does. BOTH of these groups are incredibly important and will benefit from picking this up.
As a former fifth grade public school teacher who watched her students go through D.A.R.E., I especially liked how Messner incorporated Charlie's feelings on that into this. Charlie reflects on how the people doing drugs in the videos and books in D.A.R.E. looked sketchy and hung out in sketchy places. You would know to avoid them if you saw them on the street. How do you know the dangers lurking in a pill someone just like you at school offers you to help you stay awake to study for exams? Because that's the start of Abby's addiction. Taking Adderal. Which, you know, is not unheard of for kids to be offered on a middle school (or possibly elementary) bus or school yard. It's commonly prescribed medicine after all. Medicine given to children who go to school. I think this is so important. Abby's dangerous friend is a sorority girl. It highlights how very real and very close substance abuse is to everyone.
The impact of this is exactly real enough to be felt without overwhelming the hope and magic of Charlie's full story. Abby is a huge part of Charlie's life and this has a major impact on her, but I can not stress enough how well Messner balanced harsh realities with the magic of Charlie's exuberant personality and rendered the whole thing important and serious in exactly the sort of way 9-12 year olds are developmentally ready to take it in.
It is a book I would not hesitate to put in my classroom library if I were still teaching. It would make a really great read aloud too. It will certainly be one I give regularly in recommendations.