In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane reading: Half Magic

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Eleanor really likes The Magic Schoolbus Inside a Hurricane -- Holly took it out of the library for Ian, and it made for great subway reading on Friday in anticipation of Irene.

However, when it came down to the hurricane day itself, narrative won out.  We spent much of yesterday reading one of your recent gifts, Edward Eager's marvelous Half Magic.  We're close to finished with it (and I've just sneak-read ahead to the end in order to write about it tonight).  It has reduced Eleanor to hysterical giggling several times, and has terrific suspense throughout.  It does require two parents to be home at once, as the chapters are quite long, but Eleanor has been patient with us when Isabel announces, "The End!" and slams it shut.

Half Magic is the story of four siblings who find a magic coin.  Or a half-magic coin: it turns out to grant only half of what you wish for when holding it.  This twist leads to some very funny mistakes.  Martha, the youngest, wishes that their cat could talk.  Then, of course, Carrie the cat can half-talk, though she learns to express herself pretty well:

Carrie was still there, pacing the floor, lashing her tail and muttering a horrid monologue.

"Idlwidl bixbax," she was saying. "Grompaw.  Fooz!  Idjwitz! Oo fitzwanna talkwitz inna fitzplace annahoo?"

She seemed to be trying desperately to express herself.  It was agony to watch and still worse to hear.

Soon enough, the children learn to use the coin more thoughtfully, wishing for exactly twice what they want to have happen, though they still make thoughtless mistakes out of anger.  Jane (the eldest), Mark (the only boy), Katherine (the literary one, who takes them back to King Arthur's time), and Martha (the youngest and most difficult) each get a (long) chapter devoted to their adventures.  At the end of each, they learn something about themselves and about the magic powers they control.  While it's certainly a lesson each time, it doesn't feel heavy-handed, and the children retain their personalities throughout.  Well, Jane loses hers for part of a chapter, but that's another story.

You mentioned to me in Maine that Eager was influenced by E. Nesbit, who he brings up as one of the children's favorite authors early in the book.  (Have we never blogged about her?  Shocking!)  There's certainly a thematic and tonal connection between the two authors.

Eager wrote Half Magic in 1954, and set it "about thirty years ago."  This puts the children in the 1920's, though the only moment in the text where this becomes clear is when they go to see a (silent) movie and Martha is frustrated because she can't read the titles.  At a couple of moments, the 1950's era reveals itself: Mark's adventure involves an Arab described thusly: "The ragged Arab's expression was crafty, and definitely unattractive."  He turns out to be no better than he should be, but ends up rewarded rather than punished -- it's uncomfortable as a read-aloud, but not deadly.

And then there is "the children's mother," a widow who works for the local newspaper and isn't given a name until the last chapter.  She ends up with a most excellent suitor, and turns down the position of City Editor to stay home with the children, which turns out to be her heart's desire.  Of course, that's a feminist question a lot of us are still working through....

Love, Annie

1 comment:

  1. Hey, four siblings having adventures! Sounds familiar, although they are fatherless, not motherless...