The Harry Potter series’ success is such that one might think J.K. Rowling invented magic. But that would mean overlooking the truly wonderful examples of magic in children’s literature written over the last century. Following is a collection of some of my favorites, which I love now as much as I did as a child. There’s still time for a little magic before summer ends.
In E. Nesbit’s “Five Children and It” (UNWIN, 1904), we meet a quintet of siblings whose encounter with a magical creature turns their summer vacation into a wish-making experiment. We’re far from the drama and glamour of genies swirling out of bottles, however. Their unorthodox granter of wishes is the curmudgeonly Psammead, a Sand Fairy they uncover while playing in a gravel pit near their vacation home. Curt to the point of rudeness, he would much rather be left alone, and has nothing but contempt for the mishaps that result from their improvident wishes.
His irritability is ultimately endearing, however, and the friction between the children and the cranky Psammead doesn’t run deep. The real tensions are between what the children wish for and what they get. Never fully in control of the grand adventures they wish on themselves, the children gently remind us of the pitfalls of foolishness and desire.
In Edward Eager’s “Half Magic” (Harcourt, 1954), it’s reading E. Nesbit’s “The Enchanted Castle” (Harper and Brothers, 1907) that makes four siblings feel the crushing ordinariness of their world. “Magic never happens, not really,” says Mark, “who was old enough to be sure about this.”
Enter a coin, whose magical, wish-granting properties the children discover accidentally. But the coin’s magic is unruly: Wishes only come half true, and there’s no way of knowing in advance which half. The business of figuring out this half magic baffles them at first, and they blunder – but they devise ingenious solutions as well.
Part of the book’s delight comes from following the children as they uncover the nature of this unusual magic, outwitting it and being outdone in turns.
The characters are compelling and quirky, each with his or her own particularities. And magic itself is a character, too: With “Half Magic,” we explore the odd kind of thing magic is. The book’s tone is mischievous, the pages full of wit and wordplay.
In Eager’s “Magic at the Lake” (Harcourt, 1957), the same crew figures magic out all over again, and their children continue the magical escapades in “Knight’s Castle” (Harcourt, 1956) and “The Time Garden” (Harcourt, 1958).
The world of Monica Furlong’s “Juniper” (Knopf, 1991) is darker. The arts of healing and black magic swirl around Juniper, daughter of King Mark of Cornwall. Born with a propensity for healing, she will ultimately face the threats her evil aunt presents to kingdom and family.
But Juniper has a complicated relationship to her calling. Initially, her apprenticeship with her stern and ascetic godmother Euny, who will teach her the healing arts, is simply tedious and bewildering. And the forces of magic can be terrifying; Juniper must learn discipline and strength.
As we trace her progression, the first-person narrative achieves a wonderful balance. It feels absorbingly intimate. At the same time, the healing arts are closely tied to attentiveness and observation, and Furlong’s writing is full of vivid detail. We can feel the path as we accompany Juniper on her herb-gathering walks; we can see her pet owl, Moon, shuffle his feet. We are equally engrossed both in Juniper’s world and in her mind. It’s a powerful combination.
If you like to plunge into a long series, try Lloyd Alexander’s award-winning “Chronicles of Prydain” (Henry Holt). The setup is familiar: dichotomies of good and evil; a threatened kingdom; a young and inexperienced protagonist with visions of being a hero. It’s Alexander’s skillful pacing and sense of humor that make the books shine. A cast of eccentric supporting characters accompanies Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper (and would-be hero), as he sets out to prove himself in a series of adventures that feel like a heroic romp.
Readers can share a love of magic, but the magic comes in different forms. The classic canon of fantasy literature offers us – children and adults – as many different kinds of magic as there are magic-lovers.