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The Writer’s Page: In the Time of Daily Magic

eager_halfmagic_coverI have come to believe that the books that influence us most are the ones we read at the impressionable ages of eight to twelve, the time when readers are most open to imagination and possibilities. It’s 
the time, too, when our worldview is being formed, not only by experience but also by our readings. Who you become as a reader deeply affects who you become as a person and, for some, as a writer. My first introduction to literary magic was through the work of Edward Eager, which I was lucky enough to find when my life was falling apart in the real world as my parents divorced. I stumbled upon Half Magic stored on a dusty shelf at the Malverne Public Library one summer day when I still had all the time in the world. Was I looking for a way out of the sorrow that surrounded me? Absolutely. But I was looking for more. I was looking for instructions on how to live one’s life, something that was especially unclear to me at the time. Back then, no one recommended books to a child-reader, at least not to me, and finding a book that spoke to you all on your own, turning those first few pages and entering into another world, was pure magic.

Eager, who was a lyricist and dramatist, is a dry, witty, adult sort of writer who fell into children’s books accidentally (isn’t that how all good magic stories begin?) when he discovered E. Nesbit’s work while searching for books to share with his son, Fritz. His droll, self-effacing essay “Daily Magic,” published in The Horn Book Magazine in October 1958, celebrated both E. Nesbit and Eager’s own delight in finding magic. He wrote for children through his own adult sensibility in the time 
of real-life Mad Men, cocktails and trains home to Connecticut, but he was an adult who remembered what children loved most. At the same time, he never spoke down to his readers, something I very much appreciated and had previously found only in fairy tales. Eager predicted the flowering of magical realism, suggesting that the core of a good magic book was the dailiness of its magic: “So that after you finish reading…you feel it could happen to you, any day now, round any corner.” It’s the very ordinariness of both setting and characters that makes the magic all the more believable. It’s a lesson learned from fairy tales, wherein an ordinary girl can sleep for a hundred years and a perfectly normal brother and sister discover a witch’s house in the woods and beat her at her own game. The best magic, after all, is always woven into the facts of our everyday lives.

Eager insisted that his own books could not have existed without E. Nesbit’s influence. He thought of himself as a more accessible and lesser author, and referred to himself as “second-rate E. Nesbit.” But for American readers his magical worlds may be more relatable than Nesbit’s magical books, which can seem old-fashioned and stuffy to modern children. Eager’s books maintain a timelessness that allows current child readers to be as enchanted as I was when I discovered his books in the sixties. Because Eager is a lover of puns and jokes, his books are both entertaining and adventurous. But behind the fun there is more: the sense that an adult is telling important facts about issues of family loyalty and love, and of course Eager always includes a lesson concerning the love of reading and books. Behind the adventure there is the wise reminder that, even while growing up, it’s still possible to see the world as a place of enchantment and to not lose what we had as children: the power of imagination.

Eager’s theory of magic is that it can and will thwart you whenever possible. For children, well aware that the adult world often thwarts childhood itself, the contrary rules of magic come as no surprise. At last, someone is telling the truth: the world around us often doesn’t make sense, and we have to do our best to figure it out. Magic is playful and unreliable, and that’s half the fun of it, especially when it’s doled out in halves or discovered in a lake on a summer vacation. The participants have to figure out the rules as they go along, as they would a puzzle or a game with rules that may shift and change. They make mistakes — some amusing, some dangerous — and in many instances they have to tame the magic and take control of it lest it take control of them. Is this not the deepest fear and wish of every child? That he or she will manage to take charge of a world that is chaotic and unfathomable? As every child reader knows, especially those with unhappy childhoods, the first exit out of the dreariness and difficulties of one’s real life is through reading. All books make for a good escape route, although novels are always preferable, and, as one of the characters in Edward Eager’s bookish and wonderful Seven-Day Magic asserts, “the best kind of book…is a magic book.”

* * *

Eager’s magic series totaled only seven in number due to his untimely death at the age of fifty-three. Still, seven is the most magical of numbers, just enough books to last through a summer. One of the best summers I remember with my own son was the summer of Edward Eager, a glorious time when we read all of the books in the series aloud, often in a hammock, beside a pond that some people said was enchanted. Half Magic begins the series, with a troublemaking talisman found on the sidewalk that grants only half wishes, including a cat that can half-talk in a hilarious half-language. O, unpredictable magic, wise enough to make certain that the adults in the picture remain unaware of its powers! Children can see what adults cannot, in life and in Eager’s book. The novels that follow — Knight’s Castle, Magic by the Lake, The Time Garden, Magic or Not?, and The Well-Wishers — lead up to the final book, the brilliant Seven-Day Magic, which gets to the heart of Eager’s enchantments. Here, a library book that can be checked out only for seven days creates literary enchantment. When I read it I couldn’t help but think: how does Mr. Edward Eager know this is what happened to me in my library, on my summer vacation, when I first discovered Half Magic on the shelf? And then I understood what the best novels do: they know how you feel before you do.

hoffman_practical magicMy own work for children has been influenced by Eager and his creation of what I call suburban magic, and my aptly titled Practical Magic is a book for adults who can still remember what magic was all about. No enchanted woods, no brothers who turn into swans, no vine-covered cottages, but rather small towns where nothing unusual ever happens — until one day, it suddenly does. The suburbs would seem the least likely place in the world to find magic, and yet such places turn out to be rife with enchantment. Here every bit of enchantment matters, and each firefly counts. My own magical books for children occur in small towns and suburbs, often in the summer, often involving the characters who most need magic in their lives: the lonely, the unloved, the secret-keeper, the fearful, the outsider that most of us were at some point in childhood.

Here is the best thing about magic: you never know if it’s real or imagined. But as Eager suggested, “The next best thing to having it actually happen to you is to read about it…” As a child I found solace in books in a way I couldn’t in the real world. I understood, in some deep, immutable way, that even the powerless have power through imagination. That is the gift of magic and of Edward Eager’s books. All you have to do is walk out the door on a July afternoon and turn the corner, and magic will be waiting for you. All you have to do is read.

From the May/June 2015 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Transformations.

Alice Hoffman About Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is the author of more than thirty best-selling titles for adults, including Practical Magic and The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Her latest novel for children is Nightbird (Lamb/Random), reviewed in this issue.

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