This has been the summer of the monkeybrain - too much going on, too much we wanted to do and we're not going to get it done, because it's nearing the end of August. ::sigh:: One thing we didn't want to miss was talking about Kate Messner's latest book, THE SEVENTH WISH. We became more aware of this book when Kate blogged mid-June about a librarian who loved it, but chose not to feature it in her school library.
Kirkus calls this book "Hopeful, empathetic, and unusually enlightening." Writer Anne Ursu's jacket blurb calls THE SEVENTH WISH "An empathetic, beautiful, magical fiercely necessary book that stares unflinchingly at the the very real challenges contemporary kids face and gently assures them they are not alone. Kate Messner gives her readers a story to cherish.” We read this book together, mainly out of curiosity, but found a deeper well than expected, and we're glad we did. Just be warned, there are a few slightly spoiler-y comments herein, nothing huge, and nothing that would detract from you actually reading the book, but just be warned.
Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give on-the-spot commentary as we read and blog a book together. (Feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is purple ...we're not telling!)
Two writers,& Two readers, Exploring one book...
Charlie feels like she's always coming in last. From her Mom's new job to her sister's life at college, everything seems more important than Charlie. Then one day while ice fishing, Charlie makes a discovery that will change everything . . . in the form of a floppy fish offering to grant a wish in exchange for freedom. Charlie can't believe her luck but soon realizes that this fish has a very odd way of granting wishes as even her best intentions go awry. But when her family faces a challenge bigger than any they've ever experienced, Charlie wonders if some things might be too important to risk on a wish fish.We received copies of this book courtesy of our local library and bookstore. You can find THE SEVENTH WISH by Kate Messner at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
tanita: So, we picked up this book out of basic curiosity. There's a hashtag on social media right now #MGGetsReal which is highlighting some really great middle grade fiction just now, and I'm happy to say I think we can add this to the list.
Were we to try and list seven things we liked about this book, for me, the first one would be -- outside of the adorable cover, which Kate Messner probably had no control over -- the first thing that stood out is that it's so normal. I remember ordering this awhile back, and then I forgot the plot, so I'm zipping along, reading, and this girl's an Irish dancer, this girl's an ice fisher, and then - boom! - page 22. I thought, "Oooh!" One of the hallmarks of good speculative fiction is that it sneaks up on you. It sneaks in the magical right in the midst of the -- equally awesome (because what else is clogging if not AMAZING -- but also humanly mundane. I must remember that as a writing skill.
sarah: Yes! I'd forgotten too, and I enjoyed the sudden surprise, in the middle of a normal-seeming story. Relatively normal, that is--to me, a dyed-in-the-wool California girl, all the ice fishing and snow stuff was completely foreign to me. "What is this frozen water you speak of?" So I enjoyed the glimpse into a more northerly lifestyle, and I loved it that Charlie went ice fishing with her friend/neighbor kid Drew--and I loved it that Drew, too, had his own sort of finding-himself struggles throughout the book that echoed a more traditional middle-grade plotline.
tanita: Hah, yeah - I'll not be ice fishing anytime soon. The second thing that stood out to me was that one of the characters wrote an app - just a junior high girl, writing apps and things. As one does when one is messing around with phones and things and is cool and smart. And I thought, "Yes, please; more girls like this!" Mind you, I agree with Charlie: that's a language I don't quite speak, but it was so cool to see it presented.
sarah:That was so fun! And she was in a coding CLUB! And it also wasn't a big deal. Dasha could be a dancer, and a coder, and a second-language student all at the same time--talk about a fleshed-out side character. :)
tanita: There was a quote in a recent New Yorker essay I loved - Kathryn Schulz writing about the Underground Railroad, and how we tend to insert ourselves into history and think we would have done better with issues like slavery. Schulz says, "Lived reality is always a muddle." I thought of that, when on page 84 I read Charlie's musings on a book: "Our class had a whole discussion about what we would have done differently if we were the characters, and we were all kinds of smug about it. We would have wished so much smarter than those dumb story-people." Oh, yeah. We're ALL better on paper.
sarah: YES. I thought this was a very relatable moment, and comes back to the sort of teaching (aka moralistic) element of fairy tales and stories with wishes where the wish comes back to bite you. And of course it's foreshadowing, too, which is always a thing we like.
tanita: HUGE foreshadowing, if only I'd known it.
So, now we come to the adult themes which caused this librarian some concern. The first mention is alcoholism, at the halfway point of the book. It's already established that the people to whom and with whom Charlie is conversing are normal, good people who the reader can trust, and so there is surprise, when we hear the name of the sickness -- and then, compassion. And then immediate talk of dealing with it: "I was still sad, and I made space for that sadness, but I didn't invite it in to take over the house, you know?" - p.96
sarah: I thought that was so well done. I loved Nana McNeill. She kind of fills the role of Wise Elder Dispensing Advice, but as often happens in real life, she is a Wise Elder Not of One's Own Immediate Family, which makes the advice easier to take. I am of the firm opinion that every kid needs at least one of those. And Nana offers WISDOM, but not necessarily easy solutions. In fact, at almost every turn she reminds Charlie that with some things, there is no easy way around--unless you want to fall through the ice.
tanita: Truly, there's "nothing to it, but to go through it." Nana McNeill kind of ...embodies that. And at times, the going through it thing is exquisitely rough. Another thing I loved about this book was the emotional resonance. I was just feeling with Charlie. p - 142 "Hi Carolyn," everyone says, as if they're meeting her at a bake sale and not in a room full of liars who ruin everything for their families. And that is about all of the fakeness I can take." The feels are REAL right here.
Having loved people with addictions for much of my life, I'm not always sure that the "once an addict, always an addict"/disease model of addiction thing is true for everyone - and it's kind of a tough concept to introduce to a tween, to think that this... thing will always be there, that it's something going on the permanent record, as it were - but in another way, it's merciful to present it in this way, especially because an addiction is an insidious boomerang that returns sometimes again and again and again. And as much as we'd like to say, "Yup, that was a bad time, but that's OVER, no more, good riddance," hello, nope. Nope. SO... yeah. This wasn't actually a question of being a bad thing to me, more of being a tough thing.
sarah: I... also have a lot of thoughts about addiction and treatment, and very mixed feelings about 12-step programs (controversy: this much-debated Atlantic article, and this not-quite-rebuttal from Scientific American - just a few recent examples of the discussion). I appreciated very much that this book did not pass overt judgment, but simply presented Abby's addiction treatment as is -- Charlie voices questions and doubts, and they are valuable ones that show the reader that these types of treatments aren't perfect but in many cases, this is what people have to work with. And maybe will inspire young readers, when they get older, to try to think about what WOULD work better and keep us all working towards better solutions. Because, like you said, addiction can and sometimes does return again and again, and it changes loved ones into these desperate strangers, people who can steal from their own relatives (as in this story) or beg their own grown children for drug money (happened to a friend of ours).
tanita: All good points -- no judgment, this just IS. If we can't get over the taboo, the talking and thinking about this that innovators and pioneering young folk need to do to make changes to a system they're going to have to live with won't happen - that's really true.
Another thing I liked about this book was that "I'm sorry" was not AN ANSWER - to anything. It was something said, repeatedly, but... it wasn't all roses and unicorns afterward, and All Was Solved, The End. That is so deeply, deeply important to kids -- for anybody, really -- to know it's okay for "sorry" to not be enough. It's a kind of simplistic belief we foist off on kids, "Say you're sorry!" as if that makes it all right. For a person to know that they don't have to forgive-and-forget in a no-breaths-in-between rush, that they can just... hear the words, sit with them, and know that's forgiveness might be one of the things that they're going to have to get serenity for, because another person's actions are one of the things you can't change - that's so valuable. It's good to allow a kid (or anyone) the freedom to let time do what it does, to give you perspective, etc.
sarah: Yes. It was just so awful to kind of KNOW that wallet theft, that abandonment at the feis, was going to occur, seeing it coming and not being able to stop it. And to be Charlie, wondering if you can find the strength to forgive yet again, or if this is the last straw, something unforgivable. For kids to know that it is OKAY to feel like you just can't forgive and forget, that those feelings are legitimate. That was a recurring theme in this book that I really appreciated -- the fact that so often, kids feel as if their own needs and wishes are less important than those around them -- and sometimes that feeling is TRUE; sometimes kids and their needs are forced to take a backseat, fairly or unfairly. Whether it's due to overwhelming factors like a sibling with an addiction problem, or something more commonplace like a divorce, most if not all kids will be able to relate to that sense of powerlessness.
tanita:(Oh, crud. I have totally lost track of numbers. I like more than seven things about this book - let's just leave it at that, yes? Yes.) I agree - there's another recurring theme that whatever actions don't always equal wanted results. Charlie realizes, remembering the DARE activity, where she signed a car, that "wishing doesn't make it so," in a really real way. "You know the thing about magic, Charlie? We can wish on clovers and shooting stars and ice flowers all we want. But in the end, the only real magic is what's inside us, and the people we love." p.210 And again -- "That's what you don't understand when you take the Sharpie in hand... that addiction is a real thing that can happen. That good people make awful mistakes, and the whole name-signing-on-the car is just some goofy gimmick that gets you out of math class for the afternoon. It doesn't keep terrible things from happening." - Oof.
Which brings me back to the blog post where Kate Messner wrote about the librarian feeling like this book was TOO MUCH for a school library -- I thought it was really thoughtful of her to go deeper and post ongoing discussions with other librarians about how they manage at their schools, and how they're finding solutions to difficult topics. I'll be honest - on the jacket flap this book says it's for ages 9 and up. I am the major book-buyer for my seven-and-nine year old nephews, and I look Elf, the older one, and say, "Nope. Even if he is nine." Because he's just SO young of a nine. THAT BEING SAID: I wouldn't object to having him read this in a classroom, as part of a guided experience. Honestly, if he picked this book up alone and read through it, I would be expecting him to talk about it with someone, and I would hope the adults in his life would be available for that... so though I'm going to hold onto my copy for him for another few months, maybe, I couldn't imagine not having it in a classroom as an option. Not being anyone's mother, and not being in charge of young hearts/minds anymore in a classroom setting, I guess I can be distanced from the issue, but... that's how I feel this minute: isn't it our job as an adult to bring before kids heavy issues to think and discuss about before they get IRL exposure to them?
sarah: I am glad we got to discuss this book. And, I agree with what you said: isn't the purpose of great kids/MG/YA books, in part, to help bring up difficult or painful themes in a safe space? (Of course, part of the problem is that people don't agree on what a "safe space" IS -- to me, it doesn't mean a space where you're safe FROM hearing difficult things or criticism; it's a space where it's safe TO air difficult subjects or criticism...
tanita: ...but, everyone's mileage may vary.
sarah: Right. < / end rant> So, for readers who dare, this is an excellent, amazing book, definitely deserving of the hashtag of #MGGetsReal, and I'm glad we read it.
tanita: Me, too. Until next time we read - happy Thursday, everyone. And remember: when you wish upon a fish your dreams come true. Thank you, Kate Messner, for fulfilling a wish we didn't know we had.