Reading an Edward Eager book is a bit like reading a T.S. Eliot poem. Except much funnier, and not pretentious, and you don’t have to find a dictionary or study the footnotes. Eager packs his text with literary and cultural references, but you don’t need to have read Saki or Shakespeare or Sir Walter Scott… you just feel like you’re missing something if you haven’t.
Eager’s novels are a direct homage to E. Nesbit’s, and he shamelessly borrows her storytelling formula. A group of four or five children (usually siblings or cousins), living a humdrum small-town or suburban life, stumble upon some kind of wish-granting magic. They have to learn the magic’s rules and boundaries, sometimes guided by an enigmatic Psammead-like figure, all the while keeping it hidden from the clueless adults in their lives. While the children’s goal is ultimately adventure and amusement, a more pressing, important task or quest—coming to the aid of one of the clueless adults, usually—reveals itself near the end of the book.
In Half Magic, Jane, Mark, Katharine and Martha are children growing up in the 1920s (as we can infer from the illustrations, the fact that they go to see a silent movie, and by the book’s publication date). Here is the best character-introduction passage ever:
Jane was the oldest and Mark was the only boy, and between them they ran everything.
Katharine was the middle girl, of docile disposition and a comfort to her mother. She knew she was a comfort, and docile, because she’d heard her mother say so. And the others knew she was, too, by now, because ever since that day Katharine would keep boasting about what a comfort she was, and how docile, until Jane declared she would utter a piercing shriek and fall over dead if she heard another word about it. This will give you some idea of what Jane and Katharine were like.
Martha was the youngest, and very difficult.
The magic consists of an ancient talisman, disguised as a nickel, which turns out to grant (surprise!) half-wishes. So when Jane wishes, out of summer-day boredom, that there would be a fire, a neighbouring kid’s dollhouse is set ablaze. And when Mark wishes he were on a desert island, he ends up in the Saharan desert (desert yes, island no). And when Martha wishes (in what is still my favourite chapter) that Carrie-the-Cat can talk, she begins to spit out a weird, barely-comprehensible gibberish (“Fitzsilence fitzgolden!”). The children quickly realize that they only need to wish for things twice, or in double proportions, to have their wishes granted properly. But of course they still get into ridiculous messes and awkward situations which must be resolved by chapter’s end.
I love this book because it‘s clever and funny without trying too hard, the kind of novel you can snicker over while reading it aloud to a nine-year-old. It is also refreshingly uncondescending: your kid probably won’t get most of the references, but Eager doesn’t interrupt the story to explain, nor does he assume the reader is a moron. N. M. Bodecker’s elegant Art Deco*-inspired line drawings are fabulous and add much to Half Magic’s sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek humour.
Reading Age: 8 and up
*I’m no art historian—this is a wild guess!