Rereading: MAGIC OR NOT? and THE WELL-WISHERS by Edward Eager

Cover and interior illustrations by N.M. Bodecker

I’m covering these two books in Edward Eager’s “Tales of Magic” series together because they’re related, and because they have a different tone than the others. The first four books of the series, and the final one, are unabashed magic stories with delightfully improbable beings and settings. These two are more realistic in approach, and the magical adventures that happen could all be explained by coincidence, planning by adults, and other real world things. As a child, I found this a cheat, and I never liked these two as much as the rest, but rereading them today I find much of value in them.

Laura and James and their parents are moving from New York City to a small village in rural Connecticut, and while the parents deal with the moving vans, the children are put on a train to their new home town. They’re excited about the move, and what the new house will be like, they haven’t seen it yet. They wonder if anything magic will happen to them, as in book adventures they enjoy. On the train they meet a strange girl, who tells them there is magic at their new home in a wishing well in the yard. The girl, Lydia, who they soon learn is their new neighbor, and another neighbor boy, Kip, join Laura and James and investigate the wishing well. When Laura’s first wish written on a scrap of paper and lowered into the well, “I wish I had a kitten” comes true the next day when the well bucket is found to have two kittens in it, the four children begin to believe in Lydia’s claim, and through this and the second book they have adventures in their neighborhood and make wishes that often seem to somehow come true, but it’s never a clear exhibition of magic powers. The children decide that using their wishes for good deeds is the best way to make them work, and they do help out others and help to solve real problems in the town, making new friends and a few enemies, and getting involved in many projects. Sometimes, too, the magic seems to play tricks on them, just as it often does in stories, as when a girl that James is attracted to seems to need rescuing, but when he does, it turns out she was only escaping from her father to go to the movies with her boyfriend. One of their new friends is Gordy, a rich boy who only wants to be their friend, though he makes it hard because of obnoxious behavior. Often adventures that seem to have fairytale elements, like a lost heir, a wicked ogre, and a hidden treasure involve the children in exciting events, but afterward leave them wondering if there was any real magic or not.

The second book goes even further into real world problems, and is charmingly narrated by each of the children in the story in turns. When they encounter a runaway girl, Gordy turns out to be the one who can help her. They meet a sad older man whose apple orchard is going to be replaced by a parking lot. Another new acquaintance turns out to have the solution for his problem. When their Well-Wishers clubhouse in the woods is attacked by tough older kids, a secret friend turns out to help. Later, the group works to turn public opinion from against to accepting the arrival of a new and different family to the neighborhood. This book is perhaps the deepest of the series, and the characters all change and grow through their experiences. Eager often continued the ideas of children’s book author E. Nesbit in his own work, and in these two books, I think he was using her Bastable stories as the model rather than her magic adventures.

Both books are recommended, as is the whole series. A link to the collection, in paperback and sadly lacking the original Bodecker covers, but otherwise a fine way to read them, is below.

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