By Edward Eager. Illustrated by N.M. Bodecker. Harcourt. 217 pages. $18.95 (hardback); $6 (paperback). Ages 8 and up.
I'm paying off a debt with this review. A lifelong debt. A debt of gratitude.
This is the 50th anniversary year of Edward Eager's luminous masterpiece, Half Magic, and it's well past time to celebrate the inspired work of this genial author of children's literature. Far less known than Carroll, Barrie, Baum, Blume and (his personal favorite) Nesbit, Eager (1911-64) deserves a rung on the jungle gym along with the rest. His magical and magic-filled books (pluckily illustrated by N.M. Bodecker) reflect a joyous (but not saccharine) appreciation of childhood -- the earnestness of being a kid, the bravery, the wonder. Beyond that, certainly no children's author ever expressed more enthusiasm for the act of reading than Eager did.
For bookish kids (like me), it was no wonder we'd connect with Eager. His child heroes are always going to or coming from the library, bending under the weight of the books they lug. Summertime is especially gratifying in Eager's universe, not only for the endless hours of freedom that stretch ahead and the possibility for adventures, but also because the library relaxes its restrictions then. You can borrow more books in the summer than during the school year.
Not that Eager heroes are prissy goody-goodies (they can't stand that kind of kid, or anyone -- child or grown-up -- who puts on airs). They are headstrong, impetuous, sometimes impertinent. But Eager admires all those traits too, wrapped up as they are in the whole, endearing package of childhood. He has no wish for children to be adult-like or vice versa. The adults who earn the children's affections (and Eager's) are those who don't condescend to kids or try to be one of them but are perfectly at ease being themselves.
"[R]arest of all," he writes in Half Magic, "were the ones who seemed to feel that children were children and grown-ups were grown-ups and that was that, and yet at the same time there wasn't any reason why they couldn't get along perfectly well and naturally."
All of Eager's books involve some fractured piece of magic, and Half Magic is his most clever invention and his most enriching work. Four, fatherless siblings come upon an antique coin which they soon discover grants their wishes -- but only by half. To wish themselves home is to wind up only halfway there. To meet King Arthur, they need to wish themselves twice as far back in time. Being kids -- and therefore impatient and rash -- they don't always do the math right and their miscalculated wishes send them careering into all sorts of mishaps.
It is all clever, hilarious and engaging, but what always emerges is Eager's glowing affirmation of a child's nature -- the longing to love and be loved, the earnestness, the inherent decency. In Half Magic, Knight's Castle, Seven-Day Magic and the others, Eager presents children in the way we saw ourselves at that tender age, as good-hearted and sincere and always, always hungry for fun.
Edward Eager didn't teach me to love reading, but he did teach me that I loved to read. He made me conscious of the fact that I found reading deeply pleasurable and that knowledge became embedded with my image of myself. In that sense, Eager helped me become me. Thanking him -- well, that's the least I can do.