Sep 13 2012 5:00pm

Wishing with Arithmetic: Edward Eager’s Half Magic

Half Magic by Edward EagerEdward Eager’s first success, a play called Pudding Full of Plums, came while he was still attending Harvard University. Inspired, he quit school and headed to New York and Broadway, enjoying a mildly successful career as a playwright, lyricist and screenwriter. As a decided sideline, he turned to children’s books after the birth of his son Fritz in 1942, and his realization that other than the Oz books (yay!) and the Nesbit books (yay yay!) he simply did not have enough worlds of wonder to share with his son, and this was something he could decidedly change. This turned out to be an even more inspired choice: although Eager’s plays and screenwriting are largely forgotten today (and, as I found, incorrectly listed in Wikipedia), most of his children’s books remain in print, and have inspired in their turn certain comments on this blog eagerly begging for an Eager reread.

Look. After awhile, the puns in these children’s books are going to get to you. Anyway, here we go, with the first of the Eager books still in print: Half Magic.

Eager’s inspirations are clear from the very first pages of Half Magic, which begins by bemoaning the dearth of available children’s fiction and the issues with libraries, which do let you check out ten—ten! books in the summer but only four—four! of them can be fiction. (I want you to feel the pain here that Eager clearly did.) Worse, sometimes, the titles of the non-fiction books can be decidedly misleading. Fortunately the characters, three sisters and one brother, have just discovered the works of Edith Nesbit, the greatest children’s writer ever (an opinion they share with Eager). Which leads them to wish that magic could happen to them.

One magical coin later, and they have the ability to have any wish they want. Well, technically, as they soon figure out, half a wish. It does not take them too long to work out how to get around this—just double up the wishes. Of course, that requires remembering to double up the wishes—something that can be difficult to do when angry and unable to think straight. And even when they do remember to phrase the wishes correctly, this does not always go well. Sir Lancelot, for one, is not thrilled to find the four kids interfering with his quests. He’d rather handle Morgan le Fay on his own, without the assistance of potentially evil magic, thank you very much. And although all of their wishes are fulfilled at the great tournament of King Arthur, it turns out that this may not be a very good thing.

(And for those of you wondering just how the kids have managed to understand the archaic middle or more likely old English of King Arthur’s court, even assuming King Arthur spoke Anglo-Saxon at all and not some form of old Celtic or Latin, I will only say, hush! Magic! It’s like a Star Trek universal translator thingy. Sorta.)

Merlin also warns them that the magical coin has a limited number of wishes, and traveling to King Arthur’s court has drained the coin of much of its power, so they will have to be careful. This is good advice, and, as in the nature of pretty much all stories about magical wishes, almost immediately and completely ignored. They are, after all, kids, and Eager is, after all, writing humor, which invariably means things have to go wrong, and often do, in a decidedly silly way.

For all its silliness, Half Magic does have moments of depth, particularly in a scene where Jane, the oldest child, who can still remember her father, who died at some unspecified time in the past, contemplates the possibility of getting a stepfather, and thus, she thinks, the possibility of losing her father entirely. It’s realistic, and slightly heartbreaking, and handled well, even if the final resolution seems a bit too facile (this is, after all, a happy book.) Katherine, too, has some moments of self-understanding. Mark and Martha have less to do, with Mark never really growing much beyond “the boy,” and Martha staying in the role of the youngest, although a surprisingly insightful youngest, despite her issues with math and understandable desire that fractions vanish completely.

If much of this sounds rather reminiscent of an Edith Nesbit book, well, yes, it is: this is essentially Nesbit’s own setup: a warm family environment with limited parental involvement and a touch of magic that does not really go the way the characters think it will go. Even the magic system is pretty much identical to that found in Five Children and It and The Story of the Amulet, as is the general narrative tone. But if Eager does not develop his own system, he does develop his own plots, giving a sense that these really are entirely new adventures that just happened to have happened to children who happened to be reading Nesbit books and are enjoying the fun of almost but not quite stepping into one.

Half Magic was written in the 1950s and set in the 1920s; not surprisingly, some of the gender references can seem a little dated. The only people who faint, for instance, are all girls and women. But Half Magic also presents something that we tend to forget really did happen in the 1920s: a positive image of a single working mother dedicated to both her career and her four children.

Doing both takes considerable work on everyone’s part: the kids end up doing more chores than they want to (this is a strong subplot, since cleaning the dishes and dusting takes valuable time away from adventuring, something we can all sympathize with) and even with that, and Jane the oldest generally showing responsibility, the children’s mother still has to hire household help to supervise the kids. (It’s not a very happy relationship on either side.) The mother also voices common and sympathetic resentments: she has been unable to get a promotion at her job (it’s implied this is because of her gender), and she was unable to follow her childhood dream of being a bareback rider. And of course her belief that she is going insane (thanks to half-seeing and half-believing the magic of the coin) doesn’t help. Nonetheless, it’s a helpful reminder that women did not suddenly pop into the U.S. workplace after the women’s movement.

Thus, even without the depths of the Nesbit books, Half Magic does offer a touch of its own social commentary. Not much, and if you are looking for depths, you won’t find it in this generally fluffy book. But if you are just looking for a fluffy, light read with a decidedly happy ending and plenty of jokes, this may be the perfect book for that occasion.

Having wished for a cookie and only finding half a cookie left in the box, Mari Ness can deeply sympathize with the protagonists of this book. She lives in central Florida.

Mary Beth
1. Mary Beth
Read this book as a kid and loved it. Thanks for the reminder! I have some nieces who are probably just getting old enough to enjoy it too...
Christopher Hatton
2. Xopher
It's a wonderful book, and the opening of a series of books involving these kids, and their kids. All the books are filled with wonderful puns; even the title of Magic by the Lake is a pun (there's a lakeful of magic), and The Time Garden is a garden full of various kinds of thyme which can be used for time travel (you can imagine how many puns there are in that one).

I loved these books when I was a child. I'm almost afraid to reread them as an adult, for fear of the Suck Fairy.
Chuk Goodin
3. Chuk
Is this an Eager re-read start or just a Half Magic one? Either way, great books and I'm glad to have read them.
I'd like to find similar things for my kids but I am not sure these particular ones would stand the test of time.
Evan Langlinais
4. Skwid
Unquestionably one of my top 3 books as an Elementary School student, surpassed in my esteem only by The Hobbit and Witch Week. I, too, would expect The Suck Fairy to rear her sucky little head, here...
Peter Ahlstrom
5. PeterAhlstrom
A classic. I should take it off my shelf and read it again. It's been years.
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
@Chuk -- This is a reread, but only of the Magic series, since the local library doesn't have his first two children's books.

@Xopher, @Chuk and @Skwid -- I've only read the first book so far, and all is good. We'll see if I continue to feel this way through October!

@Mary Beth -- It's a very comforting read.
David Goldfarb
7. David_Goldfarb
I had never heard of Edward Eager until his children's books were republished -- they had Quentin Blake covers, the one shown above looks familiar. ISFDB says 1999, so I'd have been 31.
(Looking back over my reading lists, looks like I read only Half Magic when it was first republished, then read the others in quick succession in 2004.)
If I could enjoy them, coming to them first in my thirties, I'd say that Xopher and Skwid can go back to them without worrying too hard about the Suck Fairy.

I will say that for the first four -- Half Magic, Knight's Castle, Magic By the Lake, The Time Garden -- I feel strongly that they should be read in publication order and not internal chronology.
Fade Manley
8. fadeaccompli
I looked at the cover and immediately went, "I've read that book!" ...but I haven't at all; I just read so many books with that artist's images on them as a child, all sort of blending together in my memory now, that I'd assumed so. But I can fix that! Because this one sounds charming, and totally worth tracking down.
Charles Smith
9. csgaidin
We listened to the audiobook on a trip this summer with our kids and loved it. I'd imagine those who read it previously have nothing to fear.
Sean Arthur
10. wsean
Hooray, Edward Eager!

A classic indeed.
Mary Beth
11. TansyRR
Glad you're doing these! I read several Eagers as a child and adored them, then rediscovered them when they were reprinted with the Quentin Blake covers in the post-Harry Potter world (I recall it was a similar time that the Diana Wynne Jones books were all reprinted and I finally got to complete my collection of those).

I've been looking forward to rediscovering these with my daughter. We've been reading Five Children and It together and enjoying it though it can be quite dense and archaic in places. I think the Eager has a slightly more contemporary feel and the novels are on the whole faster paced than Nesbit which might make them more accessible for today's children. Also I LOVE the self-referential nature of them, books about kids who have read tons of books about kids who have magic, and thus think they know how to handle it all.
Mary Beth
12. Doug M.
It's safe from the Suck Fairy. I read it with my boys (then aged 9 and 8) last year and they loved it.

It's definitely a light read, but I wouldn't call it "fluffy" exactly. (What does that mean, anyway?)

Doug M.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer
13. EllenMCM
Another endorsement of the book being safe from the suck fairy. There are many days when I desperately want half a fire.
S Cooper
14. SPC
I'm going to have to check this one out. May I suggest you look into Ruth Chew as well if your library has her books? She's very much in the same genre, inspired by Nesbit, and her books were really the ones (after Narnia) that got me into fantasy. Unfortunately they're out of print now. The Wednesday Witch is, I think, the first, and has the unforgettable image of a witch who rides a vacuum cleaner.
Mary Beth
15. Owlmouse
Edward Eager will always hold a very special place in my heart. His books were the first stories that I fell in love with on my own. I'd been struggling to learn to read, and this was the series that wrapped me around its little finger. It also taught me the very important lesson of always being careful about what you wish for! And sure, maybe I developed a slight phobia of movie theaters (WHAT IF THERE IS A GAS LEAK?!), but overall, I'm happier for having read them.

Eager also enabled me to discover Nesbit, which is a pretty awesome gift.

I also adore the original illustrations in the books.
Mary Beth
16. (still) Steve Morrison
Did they wish to hear the sound of two hands clapping? If not, they wasted their chance to answer a classic question!
Margaret Dean
17. margdean56
The Eager books were childhood favorites of mine that I was later able to share with my own kids. I love the strands of connection between the books!
Pamela Adams
18. PamAdams
Somehow I managed to miss Edward Eager in my childhood reading. However, I checked them out back when Mari mentioned that she was going to do them and thoroughly enjoyed them.

One of the many things that I liked was that these kids were nowhere near as foolish as the Bastables- yes, they were kids, but kids who actually could be trusted out of sight. They read as real- much like Enright's Melendy children, but with magic.
Mary Beth
19. HelenS
I loved Ruth Chew. Technically her books were easy readers, but I never felt that when I read them. It was more as if she were the Hemingway of this kind of fantasy :-)
A.D. Puchalski
20. adpuchalski
We read several of Eager's books as a family when I was very young (inclucing Half Magic) and as a result pretty much all of us -- adults and children -- would respond to most requests with "Not on your *fitz* tintype!" ala the half-talking cat. For years. A great book that we, no doubt, discovered due to the Nesbit connection.
Mary Beth
21. HandyRandy
Can't decide if this one or "Seven Day Magic" is my favorite Eager. His books are a joy, although the two that don't deal with "real" magic (Magic by the Lake" and "The Well Wishers" I felt somehow cheated by, and those are the ones I never re read. So glad you are giving a re read to these childhood classics!!
Mary Beth
22. hapax
I have nothing to add but that I am ecstatic that you have taken up an Eager re-read. I adored his books as a child, and had just as much fun reading them to my children decades later.

Either HALF MAGIC or KNIGHT'S CASTLE would stand as my favorite, but none of them disappointed me.
Mary Beth
23. HelenS
Magic by the Lake has real magic. You're thinking of Magic or Not? Given that Eager has characters who complain about books that have "magic" in the title and then don't really have any magic in them, I thought that was kind of low of him. (He was imitating Nesbit's The Wonderful Garden, which wasn't worth imitating IMO.) Also there's a would-be anti-racist bit in one of the maybe-magic books that is excruciating (e.g., the little black kid named Hannibal). The most interesting thing about them to me is the old lady who is a complete rip-off of Gladys Mitchell's detective Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, crocodile smile and all.

I didn't care for Seven-Day Magic much for some reason. Way too meta.
Mary Beth
24. John C. Bunnell
Chuk@3: Two recommendations for somewhat more modern fantasies in the Eager mode:

Jane Louise Curry has written a good many excellent middle-grade/YA fantasies; among my favorites are The Sleepers (a modern family encounters an Arthurian burial site), Beneath the Hill (magic in American coal-mining country, beginning a loose series involving the legacy of faerie folk who emigrated to North America), and The Magical Cupboard (the title artifact connects modern New England with colonial America). Regrettably, these went out of print for a number of years; I think there've been some recent reprints that have gone away again.

More recently, L. J. Smith (better known for the novels on which TV's The Vampire Diaries is based) published The Night of the Solstice and a sequel, Heart of Valor. These are definite lineal descendants of the Eager and Norton children's books, and I recommend both highly.
Mary Beth
25. HandyRandy
hmmmmm...I've been avoiding re-reading "Magic by the Lake" for years and years for the erroneous reason that it was one of the "maybe magic" titles. Now the distant childhood memory that it somehow involves an ancient magical turtle is leaping into my mind. Must rush off to the library tomorrow and see if they have a copy...
Mary Beth
27. Unonimous
my favorite book, so awesome.....
Since Half Magic first hit bookshelves in 1954, Edward Eager's tales of magic have become beloved classics. Now four cherished stories by Edward Eager about vacationing cousins who stumble into magical doings and whimsical adventures are available in updated hardcover and paperback formats. The original lively illustrations by N. M. Bodecker have been retained, but eye-catching new cover art by Kate Greenaway Medalist Quentin Blake gives these classics a fresh, contemporary look for a whole new generation.

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