The Wishing Game
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Author: Meg Shaffer
The book in a sentence: All the magic of your favourite childhood books, just in a book for grown-ups.
My review in a sentence: For anyone who grew up reading, this is a wonderfully imaginative and atmospheric story of the power of books, finding hope when you need it most, and rekindling magic in your life.
The Wishing Game is your ticket to the chocolate factory, a glimmer of hope in the darkness, and the promise of kindness after a long string of disappointments. And just a really special book.
As the endorsement by V.E. Schwab reads on the cover, The Wishing Game has its darkness, but it’s also a wonderfully hopeful story of fresh starts, second chances, found families, and flawed but good people.
Released in 2023, this is the story of twenty-six-year-old teacher’s aide Lucy Hart, who’d do anything to adopt Christopher, one of the kids in her class who lacks a loving home after the loss of his parents.
Broke and feeling hopeless, Lucy dares to dream when Jack Masterson, the author of the Clock Island books that helped her survive her lonely childhood, announces he’s finally written a new book. There’s only one copy, and only one person will win it. Along with three other contestants, Lucy finds herself on Jack’s awe-inspiring island where she opens the door to magic, connection, and new beginnings.
The Wishing Game doesn’t deny that life can be really hard. We meet children growing up in the foster system, adults struggling to make ends meet who can’t afford a better life, and people whose childhoods have left lifelong scars.
It’s for these reasons that Meg Shaffer’s debut isn’t an obvious choice for a feel-good book, and yet the book’s magic is in the wishing – whether for a better life, a second chance, or forgiveness – and those wishes being heard. This is a book with a generally uplifting (although not entirely) ending, delivered in a magically whimsical and darkly cozy setting.
At least for now, a couple of hesitations stop me from giving this five stars. 1) There’s one out-of-almost-nowhere plot point I think could have been removed from the ending. 2) There are several instances in which characters acted in questionable / eyebrow-raising ways. (Although it is a fiction book that doesn’t shy away from flaws and mistakes, perhaps these were needed for the plot to progress as it does, or maybe they’re just part of the book’s vaguely magically realist world.)
But that said, overall it’s a wonderfully imaginative book that rekindles the hopes and dreams we thought we had to leave behind in childhood. Usually, only children’s books play on the universal idea that there was some sort of mixup and we belong in a much grander, more imaginative, and more exciting life elsewhere, and I’ve loved this grown-up version.
I think The Wishing Game is going to be talked about a lot in 2024. I’m also so very excited to see what Meg Shaffer will publish next, especially as she’s working on a new book that’s loosely inspired by The Chronicles of Narnia (and also for adults).
What are the best books like The Wishing Game?
Considering how inspired the book is by children’s classics, I think these are the best books to read after The Wishing Game. They’re not exactly the same (I’m still thinking about the best “middle-grade books for adults”), but they hold the same magic.
Meg Shaffer has shared: “Clock Island immediately sounded like a fantasy children’s book series, along the lines of the Magic Tree House books or Percy Jackson”.
Also, Roald Dahl. In an interview with Writer’s Digest, Meg shared that for years she’s been toying with an idea of how to make “a Willy Wonka-for-grown-ups type book”, describing The Wishing Game as the result: “When I turned Willy Wonka into a children’s author and Charlie into a young teacher desperately trying to adopt a child, I knew I finally had my story”.
As Meg shared with LAPL, Another of the inspirations for the book was Goosebumps. “Jack, the famous children’s author, is very loosely inspired by R.L. Stine. His Goosebumps books have outsold Stephen King’s adult horror novels.”
Next, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, described by Meg Shaffer as her favourite childhood book. She’s explained how “Everything from A Wrinkle in Time to The Phantom Tollbooth and The Westing Game went into the story”.
In terms of Meg Shaffer’s favourite books, she shared in another interview: “I’m always reading Ray Bradbury’s short stories. Every story is like a walk through a pumpkin patch on a perfect autumn day”.