Of Cinderella Pillowcases, Pineapple And Floppy Ears

Each day as they arrive filtering into the hallways, you wonder how their morning starts at home.  As they come and go class by class, in and out of your library, you work on your goals for the day and the year but more importantly you work on giving them a sense of belonging.  You want them to know how very special they are because at the end of the day when they get on one of a long row of buses or into a waiting car, you have no idea what awaits them.

As an educator you frequently, actually day after day, think of the meaning of family. What is the exact definition?  Then you read a book like Barbara O'Connor's newest title, Wish (Farrar Straus Giroux, August 30, 2016) and you have your answer.  

I looked down at the paper on my desk.
The "Getting to Know You" paper.
At the top, Mrs. Willibey had written "Charlemagne Reese."
I put a big X over Charlemagne and wrote "Charlie."
My name is Charlie.  Charlemagne is a dumb name for a girl and I have told my mama that about a gazillion times.

Fifth-grader Charlie Reese is living in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Colby, North Carolina with an aunt and uncle she barely knows.  Social services feel it's best for her until her dad, Scrappy, now in jail is released and her mom gets "her feet on the ground."  Moving here from Raleigh with only weeks left in the school year is not a good thing in Charlie's mind and she feels it gets even worse when Mrs. Willibey assigns Howard Odom as her "Backpack Buddy."

Focusing on the pure feelings of mad, sad and frustrated Charlie is not aware life is conspiring to change her outlook.  Bertha and Gus, her aunt and uncle without children of their own, live in a home with a back porch perched on stilts into the side of a mountain.  There is not a single blade of grass in their red dirt yard but there are flowering shrubs, annuals in containers and window boxes and a huge vegetable garden.  Bertha is a talkative storyteller, warm-hearted and intuitive, a complement to Gus's intelligent and quiet calm.  Both Bertha and Gus have a gift for nurturing something else too...love.  In small signs of endearment the strength between these three people grows.


Now Howard Odom, who Charlie discovers is a neighbor, has four brothers, some older and some younger.  At first glance their house looks to be in a sad state of affairs with a yard full of weeds and an assortment of toys and cast-off sneakers, a garage looking like a stiff breeze would blow it over, a ramshackle porch with a having-seen-better-days couch on it but inside were the signs of much more;

A hamster cage on the coffee table.  A drum set in the corner.  Stacks of books and magazines lining the walls.  Some kind of tree planted in a rusty bucket by the window.  The floor was littered with blankets and pillows and shoes and board games and plastic bowls with popcorn kernels and pretzel crumbs in the bottom.
The walls were covered with crayon artwork on construction paper and school papers with gold star stickers and "Nice job!" written at the top.

It is a home filled with lives lived to the fullest and guided by...love.  

Riding on the school bus up the mountain road one day, Charlie sees a couple of dogs fighting with a man yelling at the skinnier, black and brown dog with big floppy ears.  Later one evening he quickly sneaks in and out of their yard.  Gus and Bertha tell Charlie he is a stray who happens to crave Bertha's meatloaf.  Charlie is determined to catch the dog she names Wishbone.  Howard is equally determined to help her make this happen.

The tortuous school term ends and summer unfolds in days of exploring in the woods, chats and game playing with Howard, a visit from her older sister Jackie, Vacation Bible School and lots of time with Wishbone. (Howard's plan is a success.)  Every single day, since the fourth grade, Charlie makes a wish, the same wish, using a variety of signs and techniques.  Day after day regardless of what Charlie does or says, Howard, his family, Bertha and Gus, and Wishbone give her what she needs the most.  As events build toward the conclusion, readers will wonder, along with Charlie, whether her wish will come true.


When Barbara O'Connor creates a setting you are there every moment.  The pictures she paints with her words will have you sighing.  You will come to share the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the people in Colby who influence Charlie's life.  In the characters of Bertha and Gus and Howard you will see the kind of love which Wishbone and his canine companions give to humans constantly, love without conditions.

Some of the moments we encounter in Charlie's innermost thoughts and in her conversations with other characters are poignant to the point tears will be shed.  Your heart will swell with affection.  You will want to be a part of the family they form with and around Charlie.  Here are some more passages from the book.

"Gus should have been a scientist," Bertha said.  "He can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about stars and air and plants and water and weather and all that stuff."
Gus let out a little pfft.
"He thinks I married him for his looks," Bertha winked at me.  "But I married him for his brains," she said.  
Gus laughed. 
And then the most amazing thing happened.  They both reached out at the exact same time and held hands.  It was like somebody had said, "Okay, on the count of three hold hands."  I'd never in my whole life seen Scrappy and Mama hold hands.  Shoot, most of the time, they didn't even look at each other.  

We sat in silence as the bus made its way up the narrow mountain road.  Every once in a while, the view out the window changed from woods, thick with pine trees and ferns and moss-covered rocks, to a wide-open view of the mountains stretching on forever in the distance.  A smoky haze hovered over them, soft gray against the deep blue of the mountains.  

Bertha sat up straight and took my chin in her land.  "Charlie Reese," she said.  "You think that dog don't know a good thing when he sees one?"
"What good thing?" I said in my pouty baby voice.
She held up a finger each time she counted off.  "One, he eats bologna for breakfast.  Two, he sleeps on a pillow.  And three, he is loved by an angel."
Angel?
Ha!
So here's where I had to go and ruin that image of me as an angel.  "I said something mean to Howard," I muttered.
Silence.
Why had I gone and told her that?  I wished I could take those words back.  Gather them up like butterflies in a net.  Stay an angel in her eyes.  
And then I got this bad thought.  What if Bertha was wrong about dogs loving you no matter what?  What if Wishbone knows I'm mean and that's why he ran off?
I could feel Bertha's warm skin again mine.  Hear her soft breathing in the stillness of that little room.  Finally she slapped a hand on my knee and said, "You need some grits."


Readers of all ages...yes, readers of all ages are going to totally and wholeheartedly enjoy Wish written by Barbara O'Connor.  Every act of kindness chips away at the shell of anger surrounding Charlie showing us everything we do to each other matters.  I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional bookshelves.  I believe it to be an outstanding selection for a read aloud.

To learn more about Barbara O'Connor and her other work please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  Barbara also maintains a blog located here.  Other bloggers, authors, and educators reviewed Wish---Colby Sharp at sharpread, Jana Eschner at Jana The Teacher, Kimberley Moran at Written Reflections, and August Scattergood at Chapters.  Barbara O'Connor is interviewed by Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries John Schumacher on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read., by educator and author Phil Bildner at Phil Bildner, by educator Patrick A. Allen at All-en-A-Day's Work and at A Book and a Latte.  Barbara is a guest at Publishers Weekly PW KidsCast.  At the publisher's website you can read an excerpt.  

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