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Lessons In Small Print: Be Careful What You Wish For

“It can’t be a perfect world,” they sighed wistfully, almost in unison.

After all, popularity and unpopularity – ideas at the crux of the book we were discussing – rule the lives of preteens. It was why we chose The Wish by Gail Carson Levine for our 11- to 13-year-old readers.

The WishSet in an eighth grade class at a New York school, this story explores the hunger to fit in, the dynamics of peer pressure, the fluid shifts between group acceptance and rejection, and the roles of leaders and followers in a network of fragile friendships. Unfolding at first glance like a modern fairytale that also raises painful arguments and home truths, this is a book children of an image-conscious age relate to especially well.

“I once read that in some primitive tribe or other, they punished people by ignoring them,” declares Wilma Sturtz of Claverford Middle School on the first page. “If you were being punished, nobody would talk to you. They’d look through you, pretend you didn’t exist. It wouldn’t take long for this treatment to kill you. I mean, you’d actually die. Dead.”

Why does Wilma, a kid considered perfectly nice, think this way? Because nice is not necessarily enough, claimed our book clubbers, fully empathetic toward the troubled heroine. Her worry, as they understood, is that being nice still leaves you being quite ordinary. She craves ready acceptance, the ability to make more friends more easily.

The action kicks off with a fanciful, fleeting encounter with a mysterious old woman. Intriguingly, though she’s a total stranger, the lady already knows Wilma’s name. Wilma respectfully offers to give up her seat on the bus. In return, the godmother-like figure assures her of being granted whatever she most wishes for. As she hops off at her stop, in a daze, Wilma manages to blurt out, “I want to be the most popular kid at Claverford.”  Her new benefactor guarantees this will come true.

Sure enough, Wilma suddenly attracts a mad swirl of attention with more “best friends” than she can cope with, 40 invitations for the graduation dance, and an anonymous admirer with a knack for romantic poetry! But as the tale unfolds, it reveals the age-old warning: be careful what you wish for.

Questioning the wisdom of Wilma’s choice, the book club gang broke into a volley of reactions. These ranged from enthusiasm for relishing in newfound popularity, to scoffing incredulously at the plot, to sound good sense when it comes to choosing a few real buddies over many fair-weather friends.

Then came the moment for the question we thought would elicit some ambitious or acquisitive answers—what would you wish for? To our surprise we heard neither. Topping the “If Only” wish-lists were: freedom from pesky younger siblings and nagging parents who pressured them to study harder. Others craved a wider smile from a crush, or more time to read books and watch films. It seems they were wary of the pitfalls of popularity.

When we asked what they thought of the ending, opinions were divided. A number of kids weren’t convinced about the way the writer signed off. Most felt the conclusion was too pat in its exhortation to be kind, when Wilma whispers to a boy her age eyeing the same old woman on the bus—”Help her. It’s a good idea, you’ll see.”  

Yet, they all appeared to be struck by the honest accuracy with which the author captures a scene she left behind years ago. Interestingly, Gail Carson Levine never attended the very class she so aptly describes. In an autobiographical note she explains how a special programme in junior high allowed her to skip eighth grade. For the missing material, she interviewed eighth graders on a range of subjects, from their views on dating and kissing to deeper issues of identity and belonging.

The children were touched to read her confession: “My worst year popularity-wise was tenth grade,” the author wrote. “This trauma is in the book, true to life. Every day I walked from the New York City subway station to school and back again—alone in the midst of friends.”

Eighth grade or tenth, child or adult, The Wish holds universal appeal. Bittersweet in its balanced reasoning, it is a story for kids urging us to wonder whether or not we really want to be loved for who we are.

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