Edward Eager was a successful playwright and lyricist for musical theater in New York from the 1940s to the 1960s, but he’s best known today for the series of seven novels for children now called “Tales of Magic,” this being the first one, written from 1954 to 1962. I loved them as a child, and continue to do so. Eager’s role model was E. Nesbit, writer of similar magic books in England from 1899 to 1911, and Eager similarly structured his books and followed the rules of magic laid down by Nesbit, but with a more modern approach, an economy of plot and structure, and delightful touches of sly humor, not enough to spoil the magic, but making it all the more fun.
Half Magic happens to four children, Jane, Mark, Katharine and Martha who live in a small town with their widowed mother during the 1920s. Their mother works hard at a job she hates to keep them housed, clothed and fed, but there’s little money for anything extra, and the four children begin their summer vacation from school wishing they could go to the country like their school friends, but faced with the prospect of visits to the library as their only entertainment. They wish something interesting would happen, and without them realizing it at first, something does. Katherine spots a coin on the sidewalk, nabs it, and puts it into her pocket. As the day goes on, the children begin to notice some very odd things happening that can’t be explained in any ordinary way. For instance, Katharine wishes there would be a fire to make life more exciting, and suddenly there is one, but only a small fire in a playhouse down the street. No one connects this with the coin in Katharine’s pocket until later.
Magic in these books, as with Nesbit’s, has strict rules, and the magic coin Katharine found grants wishes, but only half of them. It takes the children a while to figure this out, and there are plenty of amusing events while they do. For instance, their cat Carrie (as seen on the cover above) is given the power to talk, but can only half talk, leading to dialogue from it like, “Idjwitz! Oo fitzwanna talkwitz inna fitzplace annahoo?” Once the nature of the magic coin is deciphered, the children agree to take turns using it for a day, but as with all magic things in these stories, the coin is as tricky and literal as a hostile lawyer, and many wishes go wrong, especially ones made by mistake or in anger.
I can’t recommend these books enough, and I’ll be rereading the whole series in the days ahead. This one is the place to start, and the whole series has been reprinted often and is easy to find. The original illustrations by N.M. Bodecker are equally delightful.