“Wish” by Barbara O’Connor has all the elements of a satisfying middle grade read. It has the love between a girl and a stray dog she befriends, lovable secondary characters, funny stories and a happy ending.
The main character, Charlemagne Reese (Charlie), comes to Colby, N.C., a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, from Raleigh to live with her Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus. Her goal from the very beginning is to get back to Raleigh where her mom, dad and sister live. Never mind that her dad (Scrappy) is in jail for fighting, her mom is so depressed she can’t get out of bed, and her sister is living with a friend until she finishes high school.
Charlie sees Colby as a temporary situation, and she has low expectations for the town. Coming from a big city, she assumes everyone will be “ignorant hillbillies” and eat squirrels. But she isn’t mean or spiteful, just hurt that her family has tossed her aside and she had to come live with an aunt and uncle she doesn’t even know in a house with seven cats.
Charlie makes a wish every day (hence the title). It is the same wish, but she makes it at least 27 different ways, by my count. The reader wonders the entire story, what is Charlie wishing for?
Some of Charlie’s techniques the reader will recognize, like wishing on a four-leaf clover or a falling star, but some of them I have never heard of, like wishing on a yellow railroad car or a cloud in the shape of a camel, and the stories behind how she learned these wishing techniques are often hilarious.
Meanwhile, Howard Odom, a classmate and neighbor, befriends her. Howard has red hair, ugly black glasses, an “up and down” walk, and a big, rambunctious, loving family. He is one of my all-time favorite kidlit characters. I think it is because he has an “oil on the water” as compared to Charlie’s “arm of justice” approach to life.
In other words, Charlie has a short fuse, like her daddy, Scrappy. If someone makes her mad or hurts her feelings, she doesn’t hesitate to lash out. “I am fond of fighting,” she says. Howard, on the other hand, doesn’t let anything get to him. When people tease him because of his gait, Howard just turns the other cheek. He doesn’t seem to feel sorry for himself, he just rises above it all.
Howard likes everything about Charlie, it seems, even when she gets mad at him. He does suggest a coping technique, a word she can repeat to remind herself to keep calm. He suggests “pineapple,” so throughout the book, we see Howard patiently whispering “pineapple” to Charlie when he can see she is about to explode. Charlie even uses the technique herself occasionally. Anyway, I love Howard. He just radiates friendship and acceptance toward Charlie. Charlie blows up, Howard keeps showing up.
And then there’s the dog. Charlie sees a dog running beside the school bus and falls in love. When she learns it’s a stray, she decides to catch it and call it Wishbone. Great dog name! Not only does Howard agree to help her catch it, but so do Gus and Bertha.
Bertha is Charlie’s mother’s sister. Gus and Bertha were not able to have children of their own, but they are great foster parents. When Charlie gets in trouble at school for fighting, Bertha just gives her a hug and tells her tomorrow will be a better day. Gus takes to calling Charlie “Butterbean.”
Bertha tells funny stories about the people in Colby. For example, once the mayor was an old man named Cooter. “If anyone parked in front of Town Hall where they weren’t supposed to, he’d shoot their tires out,” says Bertha. And Cooter’s wife would wash her enormous underpants, hang them on the car antenna and drive around town until they were dry, Bertha claimed.
Ultimately, Charlie comes to Colby thinking it will be a hick town with terrible people and finds instead a whole community full of charming characters and plenty of people to love her. Who could wish for more?