Well Witched, by Frances Hardinge, was published in 2007 by HarperCollins.
Ryan and his friends don’t think twice about stealing some money from a wishing well. After all, who’s really going to miss a few tarnished coins? The well witch does. And she demands payback: Now Ryan, Josh, and Chelle must serve her…and the wishes that lie rotting at the bottom of her well. Each takes on powers they didn’t ask for and don’t want. Ryan grows strange bumps—are they eyes?—between his knuckles; Chelle starts speaking the secrets of strangers, no matter how awful and bloody; and Josh can suddenly—inexplicably—grant even the darkest of wishes, the kind of wishes that should never come true.
Even though the summary hints at things being more serious than at first glance, I still went into this book thinking it would be a fun, cute book in the vein of Half Magic or The Enchanted Castle. And at the beginning it is; the children realize they need to grant people’s wishes and start figuring out how to get a guy a motorcycle, and it’s fun—and then Hardinge takes that Enchanted Castle feel and twists it into something darker.
Suddenly, Ryan and Chelle and Josh start thinking about what wishes are and what they mean and if some wishes aren’t better off not granted, after all. Coupled with some scary imagery, things get pretty intense—especially when, horror-movie style, Ryan peers out his window in the rain and spies Josh standing in the rain and realizes what exactly that means.
So, yes, it’s intense and even scary at some points, but Hardinge communicates some deep ideas through the concept of granting wishes, such as the concept of saying one thing and wanting something deeper than that or beyond that. “Don’t take things at face value” is part of the message of the book, which is a good message to have for a book directed to an age that is starting to learn just that. But more than that, Hardinge shows that sometimes what you want isn’t what you need, and that often what you wish is only a superficial answer to what you really want.
The three kids’ personalities fit exactly with what happens to them, especially Josh, and despite the supernatural aspect, I actually believe that this sort of thing could happen. And Ryan, despite having some deep introspection that belies his age, is a believable eleven-year-old who deeply reflects on things that happen around him. Very well-crafted by Hardinge.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: Some scary imagery and scenes.
Genre: Supernatural, Realistic, Middle Grade
“Okay, wishing wells. People come and drop in a coin and make a wish. That’s what they’re for. So…there’s this thing living down the well, a well spirit, and she gets given all these coins with wishes attached, and maybe she’s supposed to grant them in exchange. And then we come along and take the coins….” Ryan gave the others a wince of a smile. “There was this word the well-thing kept saying over and over, but it just sounded like she was sneezing through soup. Only I’m starting to think it might have been ‘wishes.’”
Josh gave a sudden low grown, as if stricken with indigestion and doubled up so that his forehead rested on the grass. Clearly he had guessed what Ryan was about to say.
“I think…” Ryan continued, “I think when the well accepts the coins, that’s like promising to grant the wishes…and I think us taking the coins means…that we have to grant them.”