Books We Love: Half Magic

(The post below is another recycled bit from my now living-dead blog, As the World Stearns. Part of our ongoing series on books we adore.)

I unabashedly adore this novel, Edward Eager’s second and best book. I love it despite its pretty glaring flaws (some stereotyping of Arabs as “shifty”; a shamelessly episodic structure with some dead spots in the middle), because its quality more than makes up for such minor quibbles. It is relentlessly fun, written with the kind of wit and economy that only the very best writing has, and—at core—it is a story with real emotion, a carefully constructed tale about four kids coming to terms with loss.

The central conceit of Half Magic is a simple one: Four children find a magical coin that, when wished upon, immediately grants half of the child’s wish. Want a desert island? You end up with a desert. Want a talking cat? Boom! Your cat can now speak only an English-like gibberish. (And is even more annoyed than usual at the indignity of it all, if such a thing is possible.) Each wish the kids make gets them deeper and deeper into pleasant trouble, until they figure out a way to double their wishes and undo the entire mess.

The prose is a deft joy. Eager tells us all we need to know about the children and not a thing more (Chris and I discussed this in our second podcast), and what’s amazing is how well we feel we know the kids without getting deluged with information:

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 Katherine 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 four children are at loose ends for the summer because of their father’s untimely death several years ago. Their mother is struggling to make ends meet, so she is gone at work all the time, and the kids can’t afford to go to the country or camping or any such thing for the summer. “A woman named Miss Bick came in every day to care for the children, but she couldn’t seem to care for them very much, nor they for her.” They are half a family without their dad, and they need something to make them whole again.

So the coin is a welcome diversion. They visit the Sahara, the time of King Arthur, experiment with invisibility, and more, until the coin—having granted a wish to each—is all used up and empty and it seems their adventures are over. More to the point, their mother has met a new man, a nebbishy sort who she nonetheless loves, and who she intends to marry. A typical happy ending, a marriage; but still, the children miss their father. Nice as this new guy may be, he’s no replacement.

And then Eager takes the coin metaphor a step further and gets at the emotional heart of the book. He does it quickly and with grace, and few readers even notice what he’s done:

The last wish was Jane’s alone, and she never really knew she made it.

That night, as she was getting undressed, she found the charm in her pocket, and sat on the bed looking at it for a long time, and pondering the mystery of how it had come into their hands, and why.

And from that she went on thinking about their mother’s being married, and the changes it would bring into their lives.

She was quite contented about everything. But because she was the only one of the four children who remembered their father, she would have been more contented still if she could have felt sure that he knew about what was going to happen, and approved of it….

Her last waking thought was that she wished her father were with her now, so she’d know how he felt about things.

She wasn’t worrying about the charm, or working out the right fractions, as she wished it. But because there was still this one small corner in Jane that wasn’t completely happy, the charm relented, and thawed out of its icy used-upness, and granted the wish, according to its well-known fashion. Immediately, her father was half there.

He was there like a thought in her mind, assuring her that everything was all right, and exactly as he would want it, and that he was happy in their happiness.

Which is to say, he’s a ghost of sorts, called back to soothe his daughter’s worries. In the morning Jane has forgotten all about the visit but not its effects: She is happy without quite knowing why, and the family can move forward. And then the plot kicks into gear again: More hijinks ensue when the charm is picked up by a new child. It is the briefest of emotional moments in a book filled with hilarious business, but one that addresses what really lies at the heart of the novel, and does it with such economy that most readers skate right over it in their eagerness to get back to the fun.

Eager was a writer for television, and he wrote his novels for his only son. Like many of his time, Eager smoked like it was his profession and true love (think Mad Men), and he died of cancer at the criminally young age of 53. His son died young, too; his wife, Jane, outlasted the two of them several decades more. But the final heir to the Eager estate—all of his correspondence, manuscripts, and royalties—is Harvard University, his alma mater.

In reissuing the book for its fiftieth anniversary some years back, I tracked down and read through all of his correspondence from the early years, and discovered that the seven books of magic we have in print are not his entire body of work. There is a first novel, Red Head, which was never reprinted; and his follow-up manuscript to Half Magic, called Faith, Hope, and Carrotty, which his editor, Margaret McElderry, rejected, and which he never took elsewhere. (It wasn’t much like Half Magic, and she thought he should continue in that vein.) Each of his magical novels is half of a pair (Half Magic and Magic By the Lake; Knight’s Castle and The Time Garden; The Well-Wishers and Magic or Not?), and there are rumors of an uncompleted eighth tale of magic, a companion to the superb Seven-Day Magic. All of these things and more must be secreted away in his papers at Harvard. Maybe some day an enterprising publisher will dig them up and put them into print—perhaps only digitally, so that the books exist even while they have no physical dimension. That would be exactly the sort of magical ending that Eager would have approved of.

  1. You’ve picked one of the two books I think come close to being perfect (yes, with the flaws you noted). I LOVED reading this aloud to my son when he was young, because even when he couldn’t ALWAYS to the math, or when Eager’s math didn’t QUITE work, son thought he was doing the math and just thought he was awesome. 🙂 I think kids love trying to guess how the “half” will work this time around, and even when they’re surprised, they get to act like they knew it all along.

    The other perfect book is My Father’s Dragon. First–give the hero the tools to take on ANYTHING (the backpack); second, set up a beautifully repetitive chapter structure that makes the child reader feel secure and get to guess/plan with Elmer what backpack tool he’ll use this time.

    I’m guessing there’s a reason these books are still in print. And on my shelves. 🙂

    Thanks for the walk down nostalgia lane.


  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by bnreviewer, nomadshan and Jeanne Sauvage, J. L. Bell. J. L. Bell said: RT @UpstartCrowLit: Now on the Upstart Crow blog: Books We Love: Half Magic ( […]


  3. My son read this aloud to me while we waited for his older sister’s school to let out. The half talking cat was hilarious. So hilarious that my son felt a little let down when that part was over. I don’t think he ever finished the book, but he is a very picky reader.


  4. I’ve just ordered this for my family’s next read-aloud. Thanks!


  5. I have never heard of this book before–but thank you for bringing it to my attention. The style (from the excerpts you gave) reminded me a bit of E. Nesbit, who I adored as a child.

    One thing I found interesting in the description of the children was the clever combination of “telling” and “showing.” I think many children’s books, especially from that time, start with telling, then twist the telling into showing. That last line, “Martha was the youngest, and very difficult” really shows what I mean. Saying she’s youngest is telling, but even though the “and very difficult” is also telling, it’s twisted so well and gives such a graphic idea of the author’s meaning that it becomes showing.

    I fear I’m making no sense at all. It’s been a long day, and ultimately all I wanted to say was: that story sounds charming!


  6. Beth, regarding telling vs. showing, listen to our second podcast, where I talk about Just This Thing.

    As for Nesbit (bows down deep toward the master), Eager loved Nesbit and wrote his books specifically because he and his son had run out of Nesbit stories. Because he was clearly inspired by her stories, and because he loved her so, each of his novels takes a moment to point readers toward one or another of her novels, so that they, too, could read the children’s writer he considered “the master.” Really! Good catch!


  7. I discovered Edward Eager as an adult and loved him. It’s amazing how he captured a bit of E. Nesbit’s flavor in his writing. I can’t wait to introduce him to my own little ones. 🙂

    I think what I love best about his books, besides his humor and vibrant creativity, is the child-like innocence within the stories. The kids aren’t perfect, and they complicate things wonderfully, but I love the innocence the kids have. I don’t know how to put it into words, but it’s a different air than many of the more current books seem to have.


  8. What I like is that he tells the story like a storyteller would. Fun, fun, FUN to read aloud!


  9. Funny timing. My 9-year-old was sick Monday, so we read Half Magic when she could keep her eyes open. She’s been pestering me all week to finish–when I’m standing at the stove cooking dinner, when I am driving…

    It is a great book (we’ve heard it on audio book and read it before, so she’s just being adorably greedy). We have the whole box set. It is depressing, though, for those of us who don’t write as well as Eager.


  10. And he would keep harping on this book that she loved; first in his talk, then in his blog, then in a podcast, and then again in his blog, which was reposted from the first blog, which was recycled from the talk. Really, it made her attempts to stay cool around him very difficult.

    I discovered Nesbit through Eager.


  11. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by UpstartCrowLit: Now on the Upstart Crow blog: Books We Love: Half Magic (…


  12. Everybody’s a smartass.


  13. A few years ago I came across this book in my kid’s school library. I was shelving books in the “E” section, and as I was trying to make space for a book(can’t remember which one) I noticed Half Magic. I literally gasped because I had forgotten all about this book! It was like running into a good friend from grade school. I completely slacked off for the remainder of my shift and hid from the librarian to read some of it.

    I love the cover too!


  14. I’ll never forget the sense of magic(full and complete!) I felt when I first started reading this book forty years ago. A couple of years ago my daughter, then seven, picked it up and fell in love with it too. Thank you for doing such a lovely tribute… it makes me want to drop everything else and go re-read it.


  15. I love this book and the N.M. Bodecker illustrations. For the longest time after reading it, my sister and I would say “let’s put it in the curio cabinet with the other curios” about any odd random thing… the TV Guide that had its pages bound upside down, a melted Lego, the barn cat that walked sideways like a crab…etc., until our mother about screamed.


  16. I’ve never heard of this book, but it sounds like a terrific read! I LOVE this concept, so much so I wrote a book with a similar premise. One which I’m querying now, and is being read right now. A query which is sitting in your inbox…


  17. I have not read this book yet but clearly it lives and will live forever. And it touches people. And that is what matters. And the best books matter IMHO.

    I will check it out.

    Thank you for sharing. B


  18. It’d be nice if it came with a mini bar….

    Michael, you are up at 3:46 am?


  19. Ok I meant to put that under ereader


  20. I remember this book from your 1st Pages session at the RMC-SCBWI Conference and it sounds wonderful. I just ordered it for my young son and can’t wait to read it to him.


  21. I have to say that this is the book that had the most influence on me as a reader. It’s one that is still on my bookshelf after um…50 some years. I read it over and over as a child, and as a teacher I shared it’s fun and flavorful magic with hundreds of kids. I believe it is the very end, where the new girl discovers the coin’s magic, that still enchants me, for I keep thinking I’ll be the next to find it.


  22. As a child, I pretty much judged new people in my life on whether or not they had read this book. If they had–potential kindred spirit. If not, well, they might be okay anyway but…doubtful.

    My favorite is Knight’s Castle, though. Inspired me to read Ivanhoe!

    I’m curious though–you said this was his second book. I always thought it was his first. So what was his first?


  23. Holy cow! Eager’s papers are at Harvard? Oooh! I want to go there and start reading through them! Except I am exactly 1,000 miles away! *gloom*

    I wonder who the curator of that collection is?


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