Friday, February 15, 2008

Edward Eager

Half Magic
by Edward Eager
Recommended Age: 8+

Eager was a playwright and lyricist who turned to writing children's books in order to have something to read to his son. An avowed disciple of E. Nesbit (Five Children and It, etc.), he creates a similar style of fantasy/fairy-tale, starring a winning family of children. Only in this story, the children don't have a father, and their mother is too busy to take them out in the country for the summer, and on top of everything else, they live in Toledo, Ohio, sometime in the 1920s (the silent film era, anyway), so it isn't quite the aristocratic British fantasy typical of E. Nesbit.

So the four siblings (Jane, Mark, Katherine, and Martha) are idly wondering what to do with their summer vacation, when they come across a magical talisman (easily mistaken for a nickel) which grants wishes by halves. That's right, halves. So anything you want, you had better wish for twice as much. Naturally this causes some hilarious problems, but it finally leads the family to greater happiness, with a new father and a more enjoyable summer in sight.

In the meantime their adventures include falling into the hands of a greedy Arab merchant, joining Sir Launcelot on a quest, becoming half-invisible in a crowded theatre, foiling a jewel heist, and becoming part of the wrong family. The story is riddled with references to good books, including the Bible, David Copperfield, E. Nesbit's books, and many others. Here's a paragraph I found particularly delightful:
The next thing the four children knew, they were standing in the midst of a crowded highway. Four queens were just passing, riding under a silken canopy. The next moment seven merry milkmaids skipped past, going a-Maying. In the distance a gallant knight was chasing a grimly giant with puissant valor, and in the other direction a grimly giant was chasing a gallant knight for all he was worth. Some pilgrims stopped and asked the four children the way to Canterbury. The four children didn't know.
I love it!

Knight's Castle
by Edward Eager
Recommended Age: 8+

This 1956 story tells the adventures of a little boy named Roger, his younger sister Ann, and their cousins Jack and Eliza, all of whom are descended from the children in Half-Magic. When Roger's father takes ill and needs treatment at a Baltimore hospital, the children go to spend the summer with their cousins. Aided by a magic model soldier that has been in the family for generations, Roger begins a quest to earn a magical cure for his father's illness.

Soon joined by his sister and cousins, and aided by a toy castle and a whole set of very special toy soldiers, Roger becomes the hero in a fractured version of Walter Scott's classic romantic novel of the age of chivalry, Ivanhoe. Of course the children are inspired by seeing a movie of Ivanhoe before the real adventures begin. But soon they are inside their own magic toyland, interacting with literary characters and toys come to life, and rewriting the adventure of Ivanhoe as they go along. And if they succeed in their heroic mission, they may also succeed in earning a favor for Roger's dad...

Dedicated to the author's son - whose bedtime stories became fodder for Eager's classic books - this is the story of children at an age when "pretend" games begin to be left behind... and one last, sparkling flare-up of the power of imagination, the magic of romantic tales and the too-soon-forgotten joys of toys come to life. Complete with an episode in which facets of the "modern age" clash with the age of chivalry, and a nightmare of a giant dollhouse and its vengeful dolls, and a myserious ancient rune, and even a broadly-drawn depiction of the horrors of totalitarianism, it is simply a story too original and too lovely to be passed by.

The children are wonderfully realized characters, and they all grow with the experience of this adventure (which, one is left hoping at the end, would not be their last adventure together). And like Eager's other creations, his writing style is just perfect. Once again, I quote...
At first the going was easy, and foxgloves glowed like purple and white candles, and birds warbled their native woodnotes wild, and Allan-a-Dale sang tirra lirra, and Ann might almost have believed they were bound on a party of pleasure, instead of a deed of derring-do.
Doesn't that make you want to jump up and go out to buy this book?

Magic by the Lake
by Edward Eager
Recommended Age: 8+

The four children from Half-Magic have a new stepfather now, and together with him and their mother and their cat named Carrie, they go to spend their summer vacation on a lake in Northeastern Indiana. There Jane, Mark, Katharine, and Martha meet a magic, talking turtle who guides them on a lakeful of magical adventures.

Of course, when you ask for "magic by the lake," you might not get what you think. As the turtle chides them:
"But of course you couldn't be sensible, could you, and order magic by the pound, for instance, or by the day? Or by threes, the good old-fashioned way? Or even by halves, the way you did before?... But no, not you. You had to be greedy and order magic by the lake, and of course now you've got a whole lakeful of it, and as for how you're going to manage it, I for one wash my hands of the whole question!"
Half of the adventure is dealing with this touchy turtle, and sending him to intercede for them with the magic of the lake. The other half is controlling their own foolishness and dealing with the unexpected results of what they wish for... such as encounters with mermaids, pirates, cannibals, and children from the future; rocs and thieves out of the Arabian Nights; a penguin in its natural habitat, and the pleasures of sweet sixteen. They search for buried treasure. They escape virtually certain death. They meet a genie. And they discover the South Pole.

But again, not everything they wish turns out for the best, and they have to be careful not to upset the magic or use it up too fast. Especially when they are lost in the woods, or visiting a haunted house, or when little Martha breaks the rules and suffers the consequences. And on top of everything, they want to help kind Mr. Smith, their stepfather, stay in business with his bookshop in Toledo. With a lakeful of magic, how can they go wrong?-- Ah! But who can predict what will happen with all that magic?

This book has some of the funniest puns and gags in all of Eager's books, and its nostalgic look back on the 1920's adds to its charm (whereas most of his books are set in his present-day 1950's). The children are true characters, and even the turtle has a delightful personality. Sparkling with realistic detail combined with outrageous fantasy, and filled with the very sort of adventures that might happen if children's pretend-magic became real, this book is a treasure that I hope you will dig up!

Magic or Not?
by Edward Eager
Recommended Age: 8+

In yet another story that brings the magic of E. Nesbit into mid-twentieth-century America, Eager adds an additional twist: you're never sure whether the wishing well made it happen, or whether there was a more natural explanation for the things that happened.

The things that happened, happened to James and Laura - twins who have just moved to a very old red house in the Connecticut countryside with a supposedly magical wishing well in its front yard. They also happen to an outgoing neighbor boy named Kip and a strange, horsey, strong-willed girl named Lydia, who lives in the other direction. Some of the things happen to James and Laura's baby sister Deborah, too, and some of them to a rather annoying kid named Gordy whose mother is the great and terrible President of the Garden Club.

And between these four, or five, or six children (depending), the question of whether their adventures are "magic or not" comes up over and over, until their climactic escapade leaves them caught between two impossible alternatives: either the magic was real, or "It'd have to have been the biggest conspiracy since Aaron Burr!"

Naturally, nothing happens that is quite as self-evidently magical as the adventures in Half Magic or Knight's Castle, etc. But the children manage to have an interesting summer and to do all kinds of good for others, in their own stumbling way. They help a lady "from another world" keep her ancestral home. They restore a "lost heir" to the bosom of his family. They overcome a "mob-led queen" and they lay a restless ghost. Or do they?

Whether other forces are at work behind the children's magical discoveries... or whether they made their own magic happen somehow... or whether it is, indeed, the wishing well... the children have lots of fun, and you will have fun with them. And as they constantly turn over the question of "magic or not" in their minds, they keep alive for themselves - and for us - a sense of the possibility of a kind of magic in the modern world, even if it is the kind that people make for themselves.

Meanwhile, expect some good puns, the obligatory reference to the author's own Half Magic (he had good reason to be proud), and references to other books that you might like to read, before you're too old to believe in magic...

What am I saying? You're never too old!

Seven-Day Magic
by Edward Eager
Recommended Age: 8+

The seventh magical book by mid-twentieth-century American author Edward Eager pays homage, once again, to his favorite children's author: E. Nesbit. But it also makes references to the Oz stories of L. Frank Baum, The 13 Clocks by James Thurber, the Narnia tales of C. S. Lewis, the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the author's own Half-Magic. It also visits the world of Charles Dickens, the desert island of Robinson Crusoe, and the wanderings of a medieval knight errant... but the "magical world" in which we find the heart of this adventure, is a 1960s (then present-day) television studio.

Barnaby, Abbie, and Fredericka are the children of a singer who specializes in "background vocals" on TV variety programs. Their mother sells real estate. Their neighbors, and best friends, are John and Susan, who are being raised by their spunky but slightly crazy Grannie. In this group of interesting young characters, Barnaby is the idea man. And one summer Saturday at the public library, his idea of the kind of book they need leads them to a magic book that they can only have out of the library for seven days.

Essentially, this magic book is whatever the person holding it wants it to be. But because of what the children wished for, it turns into a book about them. Yes, they can read about themselves in it (kind of Neverending Story-ish). But only up to the present moment; after that the book is blank, waiting to be filled with their wishes and the amazing adventures they lead to. Adventures with a wizard, a witch, and a dragon. Adventures with a baby suddenly grown into a man. Adventures in the wild west, and more.

But as I said, the central adventure has to do with a TV studio, and the mixed results of the children's interference with the singing career of Barnaby, Abbie, and Fredericka's dad. This episode is a hilarious send-up of "show biz" but also a very poignant story of a child's love for her father, and the unanticipated side-effects of having your wishes come true.

Two passages in this book come up for special consideration. The first one puts the "magic" of this kind of story - and, I think, many of the other stories we love - in the context of religion. One of the children insists on putting the magic book away on Sunday, even though they only have it for seven days. Her reasoning: "Magic's not a Sunday thing. Not that it's sinful or anything, I don't mean. But they just wouldn't mix."

Another passage hints at an attitude toward books and television that I believe I share with Edward Eager, and I quote...
"I heard somebody say," put in Fredericka, "that someday pretty soon there won't be any books. Television'll take their place."

Everybody shuddered at this thought.

"It won't," said Barnaby. "It couldn't. And I don't think we ought to do anything to encourage it and make it think it can."
Hear, hear!

The Time Garden
by Edward Eager
Recommended Age: 8+

The children from Knight's Castle return for another summer full of magical adventures through history and literature. Jack and Eliza and their cousins Roger and Ann meet at the home of a distant relative, a lady who writes children's stories in an old mansion on the South Shore of Massachusetts, while their parents are in London.

In between swimming and collecting shells and taking walks on the shore and other fun (and in Jack's case, hitting on teenage girls), they find themselves swept into one magical journey after another. They are aided on their way by a wonderful creature called the Natterjack-- and I won't be the one to tell you who or what that is-- who guides them on journeys through time, space, and even books come to life. His secret? A patch of wild thyme growing in the garden, and the fact that in pun after mind-bending pun, Thyme is interchangeable with Time.

You would think that after reliving Ivanhoe in a nursery full of toy soldiers come to life, they would have the hang of things like this. But of course, the children get into scrape after scrape, thanks in part to Eliza's strong-mindedness, Ann's softheartedness, and the fact that Jack is just about too old to believe in magic any more. Which changes their adventures from a series of "non-fiction" experiences in the Revolutionary War and Civil War periods, to an outrageous visit to the semi-autobiographical world of Little Women, to a tropical isle filled with cannibals and even more astonishing company, to (at last) three silly and at times almost scary adventures in London at different periods of time.

The lessons to be learned are quite simple:
  1. When playing with magic, always follow the rules.
  2. Try to dress and behave appropriately when visiting Queen Elizabeth the First or Queen Victoria.
  3. Be polite and considerate to Natterjacks. And finally,
  4. Try to do some good when you're living on borrowed thyme.
This is a funny, charming, mind-expanding book, and the children are terrific. And if that isn't saying enough to get you to read it, let me quote part of what makes this perhaps Eager's most perfect book...
What the Natterjack would have said, no one could tell, for no one had asked him. The Natterjack did not mind. He bided his time. He could wait.

He and the house and the garden were waiting. They were waiting for four children. They didn't care how long they waited. They had all the time in the world.
The Natterjack alone is worth your time and trouble. As fun magical creatures go, he tops the list right alongside E. Nesbit's Phoenix and J. K. Rowling's Dobby. And, like most of Eager's books, The Time Garden slips you hints about other books that you may not have heard of, but that (if you like this one) you may also come to love.

The Well-Wishers
by Edward Eager
Recommended Age: 8+

All the children from Magic or Not? are back, with some new friends. In yet another book that transports the magic of E. Nesbit into American suburbia in the 1950s, Edward Eager delivers a warm-hearted tale of a group of children, using chiefly the magic of their own kindness and camaraderie to make the lives of those around them better. Only this time, he breaks the convention of having their adventures take place over a summer holiday. This tale unfolds during the fall, between and even during days of school and evenings of homework, school clubs, and sports.

It also breaks the E. Nesbit conventions by letting the main characters themselves narrate the story, taking a chapter at a time by turns. So you grow closer and see deeper into the hearts of the Martin twins Laura and James, their baby sister Deborah, and their sixth-grade friends Kip, Lydia, Gordy, and Dicky. Their hearts, their experiences, and their relationships are so real, so familiar, and so enjoyable! And the changes this second batch of "wishing well magic" brings them are part of the magic of growing up.

None of it is really "fantasy adventure" type stuff. The magic is mostly in these kids' hearts. But they are clever, funny, and sweet, and the things they accomplish by just believing in the wishing well are so amazing that you almost have to believe yourself. They help heal the hurts of a disturbed child. They help bring a bullying "hep cat" out of his shell. They play matchmaker between a man who is losing his farm and a woman who can't handle hers. They ensure that a controversial new family gets the welcome they deserve-- not the one planned by the "Smugs" of the neighborhood. And finally, when what actually looks (at first) like a real magical adventure turns into something else altogether, they still manage to pull off a "good turn" worthy of their club's name.

In one instructive passage, the children muse about the relationship between their "magic" and the Christian religion. They even ask their pastor about it. And though, being a pastor myself, I question the way they (or Eager, through them) use the Bible to arrive at their conclusion, I think the conclusion is correct. After hearing about the "good turns" the children have used the well to do for people, and being asked whether it is sacrilegious to use it for something related to the church, their minister says:
"I'm afraid I have not had a great deal of experience with magic. At least not the kind that lives in wells. But from what you tell me of the particular magic power you wield, I should say that it would 'mix with church,' as you put it, quite satisfactorily. I could even wish at times that more of my congregation were similarly gifted."
On the other hand, the guy in the Bible who went to the Witch of Endor wasn't wise Solomon, but foolish Saul, and the result was not good. I suppose the reason the kids got this wrong is that they are, well, kids, and part of the charm of the way Eager writes them is that they don't always get things right. These kids are adorable, and their adventures are charming, and the way they express themselves is so authentic (though of course, Edward Eager wrote the whole book) that you feel almost like part of the club. And at the end, when each one muses in turn on what he or she is thankful for, you will be thankful to have shared the magic with them.

1 comment:

wendigo said...

I visited your site while scanning the web for biographical information on Edward Eager. I'm teaching a Chidren's Literature course, and for the first time (of about 6 iterations) I have included one of his books, books I loved as a child. You've made a very fair assessment of his books, I think, but I do want to focus on your (seeming) ambivalence about his attitude towards magic versus Christian faith. To my mind, the two are wholly compatible, as Eager envisions things. In *Knight's Castle* for example, the "words of power" which return the children to the ordinary world are (like those of Alice at the end of her time in Wonderland) words of disbelief: "You're nothing but lead soldiers." Eager uses something similar to this concept in all his works. Think of Jane transformed into Iphigenia in *Half Magic*--what she wants most is belief, not the calculating scepticism that her "new family" represents. My point is (I think) that the beauty and the benefit of magic is that it enables children (and adults) to picture their heart's desire--and what is this but the ability to use imagination to create relationships with others, to interact with the world, in the manner of our best selves. Oh, this is not expressed very well, and I hope my class on Saturday will find me expressing it better! But thanks for your good insights in any case!