The fish flops in my hand, and my heart speeds up. I’m not afraid of the ice anymore; I’m afraid of the wishing. Before, when I wished for confidence on the frozen lake, I never thought I’d get it. Since I did, the wishing is different. This time, I know I may get what I’m asking for—or something that sounds like it, anyway. I can’t help worrying I’ll ask for the wrong thing.
—The Seventh Wish, by Kate Messner
Kate Messner’s new middle grade book, The Seventh Wish, is a retelling of the fairy tale The Fisherman and His Wife. It’s about a girl who knows exactly what fairy tale she’s fallen into, but who thinks that since she knows the story, she can avoid its pitfalls. It’s about wanting to use magic to help loved ones—and yourself—and it’s about how shortcuts can lead to unexpected destinations. It’s a story about Irish Dance that stars an entirely-real girl and a multifaceted cast of well-rounded side characters, and it has chapter titles like “Gratitude and Boogers.” It’s about having to work and save for something you want, it’s about pressure, about different ways of blowing off steam and engaging with anxiety. It’s about friendship and family and word games and first crushes and ice fishing and magic, and it’s funny and thoughtful and full of heart.
But none of those aspects of the book are what got Kate Messner uninvited from a school visit, and none of them are what have led to some librarians making the decision to not to stock it on their shelves.
In addition to all of the above, The Seventh Wish is about the effects that opioid addiction can have on a family, and in particular, on what it might be like to be the younger sibling of an addict. It deals with shame, with guilt, with anger, with loss of trust, it deals with isolation, and it deals frankly and honestly with all of those things. The idea of young readers engaging with these topics—despite the fact that the numbers suggest that there are children in any given American community who are already engaging with them, and doing so on their own—has some adults feeling nervous, scared, and protective. But these adults, good-intentioned as they are, are working from a variety of false premises: they are assuming that knowledge leads to anxiety; they are assuming that because their communities look idyllic, that they are idyllic; and they are assuming that their personal understanding and beliefs about the needs and interests of children are universal.
What’s especially sad and frustrating about this whole situation—and the idea of insidious, quiet censorship in general, because let’s be honest, that’s exactly what we’re talking about—is that The Seventh Wish comments on ALL OF THOSE CONCERNS. But even though it works at answering those questions, there are readers out there who’ll never know that... because, again, there are librarians out there who’re avoiding it purely based on their assumptions about the book. So let’s unpack those three assumptions through the lens of The Seventh Wish.
Knowledge and anxiety. Do we live in a scary world? Absolutely. Are children aware of that? Absolutely. When Abby’s addiction is first revealed, all Charlie has to bounce it off of is what she learned in the D.A.R.E. program in school. She thinks about the videos they watched, about how scary all of the people in the videos were, about how Abby doesn’t “look” like an addict. That dissonance is understandably frightening and confusing.
When all she has to work with are a few vague facts, overheard conversations, and half-remembered information from D.A.R.E., the fear she’s got for her sister and the entire family is compounded by not knowing. The more questions she asks, the more she learns, the more she understands about addiction and the process of recovery, the less-scary the situation becomes. Of course that doesn’t make her concern for her sister disappear. Of course it doesn’t assuage every fear. But having that baseline of information and understanding goes a long way towards giving Charlie the tools to deal with it.
If it looks idyllic, it is idyllic. Charlie’s friend’s grandmother touches on this one while she’s talking about her late husband’s alcoholism: “A lot of people didn’t know because he went to work and kept his job and seemed fine most of the time, I guess. But he was struggling a long while before he got sick.” This ties into the previous point about Charlie’s misconceptions about What Addicts Look Like—people who struggle with addiction don’t have flashing neon signs over their heads, and no matter how lovely your neighborhood looks, you don’t know what goes on in other peoples’ houses. Charlie comes from a family that is about as stereotypically functional as you can imagine—two parents and two highly-achieving daughters, four people who cook and eat dinner together, who have long-running jokes and traditions—and yet. Wholesome appearances don’t mean that people aren’t struggling, and oftentimes, the pressure of keeping up said wholesome appearances can add to the stress and the loneliness of the core struggle.
Children’s needs are universal. I’m not a big believer in universality in general—I think that worldview and culture and perspective are such huge factors that it’s almost impossible to make sweeping generalizations about anything. I do think, though, that the need for connection, the need to NOT BE ALONE is one of the few universalities that I believe in. When Charlie realizes that she’s not alone—when she discovers that one of her peers is dealing with addiction in her family, too—the relief she feels is palpable. Her attitude, her mood, her perception—it’s a huge turning point in the story, and you can almost feel her shoulders begin to unscrunch. It’s important for Charlie to know she’s not alone, it’s important for kids in Charlie’s shoes to know that they’re not alone, and it’s important for kids who’re lucky enough to NOT be in this position to begin to empathize.
All of this is to say—somewhat longwindedly, sorry!—that YES, you should buy this book, for the addiction storyline, but for all of the rest of it, too. And, YES, you should read it. And YES, you should talk about it. And, if you are a librarian, YES, you should stock it on your shelves.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.