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Wishing with Arithmetic: A Tribute to Edward Eager

In introducing this unsung author/adman/playwright, I first imagined starting off by saying I discovered Edward Eager on the shelves of the Spring Hill Elementary School library. But then I realized the real truth is that I've always been a visual as much as an idea person, and my attention must first have been grabbed by the terrific N.M. Bodecker illustrations that graced the covers of all EE's novels When down towards the bottom here A.L. Sires says "I actually remembered some of the drawings across a span of 40 years," I can relate. But Eager the author is what this post is about, and he wielded words with as much aplomb as Bodecker worked a pen (in an era when children's books were a a literary genre and not yet a consumer niche usurped by every pop singer and pastor). His first success was a play called a Pudding Full of Plums... Who could not want to like a writer whose bio kicks off with a line like that?

Read on with Mari Ness:

Edward Eager's first success, a play called Pudding Full of Plums, came while he was still attending Harvard University. Inspired, he quit school and headed to New York and Broadway, enjoying a mildly successful career as a playwright, lyricist and screenwriter. As a decided sideline, he turned to children's books after the birth of his son Fritz in 1942, and his realization that other than the Oz books (yay!) and the Nesbit books (yay yay!) he simply did not have enough worlds of wonder to share with his son, and this was something he could decidedly change. This turned out to be an even more inspired choice: although Eager's plays and screenwriting are largely forgotten today (and, as I found, incorrectly listed in Wikipedia), most of his children's books remain in print, and have inspired in their turn certain comments on this blog eagerly begging for an Eager reread.

Look. After awhile, the puns in these children's books are going to get to you. Anyway, here we go, with the first of the Eager books still in print: Half Magic. Eager’s inspirations are clear from the very first pages of Half Magic, which begins by bemoaning the dearth of available children’s fiction and the issues with libraries, which do let you check out ten—ten! books in the summer but only four—four! of them can be fiction. (I want you to feel the pain here that Eager clearly did.) Worse, sometimes, the titles of the non-fiction books can be decidedly misleading. Fortunately the characters, three sisters and one brother, have just discovered the works of Edith Nesbit, the greatest children’s writer ever (an opinion they share with Eager). Which leads them to wish that magic could happen to them.

One magical coin later, and they have the ability to have any wish they want. Well, technically, as they soon figure out, half a wish. It does not take them too long to work out how to get around this—just double up the wishes. Of course, that requires remembering to double up the wishes—something that can be difficult to do when angry and unable to think straight. And even when they do remember to phrase the wishes correctly, this does not always go well. Sir Lancelot, for one, is not thrilled to find the four kids interfering with his quests. He’d rather handle Morgan le Fay on his own, without the assistance of potentially evil magic, thank you very much. And although all of their wishes are fulfilled at the great tournament of King Arthur, it turns out that this may not be a very good thing.

(And for those of you wondering just how the kids have managed to understand the archaic middle or more likely old English of King Arthur’s court, even assuming King Arthur spoke Anglo-Saxon at all and not some form of old Celtic or Latin, I will only say, hush! Magic! It’s like a Star Trek universal translator thingy. Sorta.)

Merlin also warns them that the magical coin has a limited number of wishes, and traveling to King Arthur’s court has drained the coin of much of its power, so they will have to be careful. This is good advice, and, as in the nature of pretty much all stories about magical wishes, almost immediately and completely ignored. They are, after all, kids, and Eager is, after all, writing humor, which invariably means things have to go wrong, and often do, in a decidedly silly way.

For all its silliness, Half Magic does have moments of depth, particularly in a scene where Jane, the oldest child, who can still remember her father, who died at some unspecified time in the past, contemplates the possibility of getting a stepfather, and thus, she thinks, the possibility of losing her father entirely. It’s realistic, and slightly heartbreaking, and handled well, even if the final resolution seems a bit too facile (this is, after all, a happy book.) Katherine, too, has some moments of self-understanding. Mark and Martha have less to do, with Mark never really growing much beyond “the boy,” and Martha staying in the role of the youngest, although a surprisingly insightful youngest, despite her issues with math and understandable desire that fractions vanish completely.

If much of this sounds rather reminiscent of an Edith Nesbit book, well, yes, it is: this is essentially Nesbit’s own setup: a warm family environment with limited parental involvement and a touch of magic that does not really go the way the characters think it will go. Even the magic system is pretty much identical to that found in Five Children and It and The Story of the Amulet, as is the general narrative tone. But if Eager does not develop his own system, he does develop his own plots, giving a sense that these really are entirely new adventures that just happened to have happened to children who happened to be reading Nesbit books and are enjoying the fun of almost but not quite stepping into one.

Half Magic was written in the 1950s and set in the 1920s; not surprisingly, some of the gender references can seem a little dated. The only people who faint, for instance, are all girls and women. But Half Magic also presents something that we tend to forget really did happen in the 1920s: a positive image of a single working mother dedicated to both her career and her four children.

Doing both takes considerable work on everyone’s part: the kids end up doing more chores than they want to (this is a strong subplot, since cleaning the dishes and dusting takes valuable time away from adventuring, something we can all sympathize with) and even with that, and Jane the oldest generally showing responsibility, the children’s mother still has to hire household help to supervise the kids. (It’s not a very happy relationship on either side.) The mother also voices common and sympathetic resentments: she has been unable to get a promotion at her job (it’s implied this is because of her gender), and she was unable to follow her childhood dream of being a bareback rider. And of course her belief that she is going insane (thanks to half-seeing and half-believing the magic of the coin) doesn’t help. Nonetheless, it’s a helpful reminder that women did not suddenly pop into the U.S. workplace after the women’s movement.

Thus, even without the depths of the Nesbit books, Half Magic does offer a touch of its own social commentary. Not much, and if you are looking for depths, you won’t find it in this generally fluffy book. But if you are just looking for a fluffy, light read with a decidedly happy ending and plenty of jokes, this may be the perfect book for that occasion.

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More in a review by A.L. Sires @ The SF Site


Eager died in 1964, but not before he had penned several charming and witty books for the 7 to 12-year-old set. His formula was most always the same: Take four children with time on their hands and put them in an out-of-the-way place, and before you know it, they're uncovering magical talismans and having adventures.

In the first and possibly most delightful of Eager's books, Half Magic, the talisman in question is a coin whose magic is so worn out that it grants wishes only by halves. This results in such prodigies as a cat that can half talk, a half-alive lawn statue, and so on. In Knight's Castle, a magic toy soldier transports Roger, Ann, Eliza and Jack to the time of Ivanhoe and Robin Hood. The talisman is a turtle in Magic by the Lake, in which the children must deal with an entire lake full of magic and search for a treasure, and sprigs of the herb thyme -- and a magic creature called the Natterjack -- in The Time Garden.

Reading several of these books at once gives a splendid sense of how meticulous Mr Eager was in their construction. For example, two of them, Half Magic and Magic by the Lake, have as their main characters Jane, Mark, Katherine and Martha, and take place in the 20s. The other two involve two brother and sister combinations, Jack and Eliza and Roger and Ann as mentioned above. In case the titles aren't a clear enough indication, Eager likes to play with time and space. In Magic by the Lake the two groups of children actually meet briefly on a pirate island. This adventure, told from the viewpoint of Jane, Mark, Katherine and Martha, is later recounted in The Time Garden from the point of view of Jack, Eliza, Ann and Roger. The books were written several years apart, but Eager obviously had the idea in mind all along.

And he doesn't do this just with his own characters -- the children from The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit make a cameo appearance in The Time Garden. Many Arthurian characters as well as some of Sir Walter Scott also appear in the books.

All of which ought to give some sense of the delightfully light-hearted manner in which Eager tells his adventures. There's some swordplay and derring-do, and some onstage violence, but it is very cartoonish and obviously not to be taken seriously. There is nothing here that will give nightmares to even the most tremulous child.

The most notable thing about these books, to me, is that these are very literary adventures for the most part, and less fantastical than their initiating factors would lead one to suspect. We not only visit Camelot (with nary a dragon in sight), we are also taken back into Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Eager had a deep love for literature, and it shows. Not that these books are at all stodgy or dull -- far from it. Eager's touch is deft and light, making these volumes as easy to take as any confection. Their literate subtext is what elevates them from the common run of children's books. Eager assumes that his readers are educated and even, dare I say it, cultured. But a background in the classics isn't required. For my money, Eager's books can serve as a painless introduction to deeper literary waters, making them a rare commodity.

While we're at it, a word about the intricate, appealing pen-and-ink illustrations by N.M. Bedecked (artist below; NBD all over). The word is, enchanting! I actually remembered some of the drawings across a span of 40 years. Bodecker draws snooty people better than anyone else.

If you know a child who loves to read, any one of these books would make a wonderful gift. Eagerly recommended!

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And more more background and semi-critical commentary backro

In 1911 Edward McMaken Eager was born in Toledo, Ohio and lived primarily there through the rest of his childhood. However, not all of his time was spent in Ohio. As a child, Eager made trips to Australia and California, briefly went to school in Maryland, and summered in the Indiana countryside. During his summer visits to the country he developed an appreciation of the outdoors and a love of gardening. A great reader as a child, Eager was very fond of the Oz books of Frank L. Baum. His loving of writing also developed early; Eager said in an autobiographical sketch for More Junior Authors, “As a child I was always reading…and I alway[s] knew I wanted to be a writer someday.”

When Eager went off to Harvard he continued to write and found success with an original play called Pudding Full of Plums. This work did well enough that he was able to live off the royalties for a time and he decided to leave Harvard and move to New York City to pursue writing full-time. Over the next fourteen years Eager established himself as a successful playwright and lyricist working on such productions as the musical Adventures of Marco Polo with Neil Simon. He was know primarily for his work on Broadway, but was also involved with several radio and television programs as well as adapting operas for NBC-TV. In 1938 Eager married Jane Eberly, an old schoolmate from Ohio and they had one son, Fritz, who later graduated from Harvard, “an achievement in which his father took vicarious delight,” having never finished out his own time at Harvard.

It was through reading to his young son that Eager rediscovered his love of children’s books. Eager was tasked with reading aloud to his young son because, as he said, “My wife Jane doesn’t like children’s books, apparently never did…On the other hand I like children’s books, remember all those I knew, and still have most of them.” Eager started reading the works of Beatrix Potter, who he referred to as “the genius of the picture book,” and classic fairytales to his young son, but those were quickly dispatched with and when he turned to the other books in his collection, he found that “while their pictures might still hold a nostalgic charm…[they] were disillusioningly empty as to text.” Their uninteresting texts inspired him to try his own hand at writing children’s picture books and in 1951 he published his first book, Red Head, which was illustrated by Louis Slobodkin. He wrote it specifically for his son, who disliked people calling attention to his red hair.

Three years after the publication of Red Head, the young family moved out of New York City to a house in Connecticut out in the country. Here Eager rediscovered his love of the outdoors and gardening and it was here that he found inspiration for many his future works including his two books featuring country animals: Mouse Manor, which was illustrated by Beryl Bailey-Jones, and Playing Possum, illustrated by Paul Galdone. Mouse Manor and Playing Possum were Eager’s only other books for younger children, and, though not as well known as his later magic-centered books, were innovative in their straightforward and unromantic portrayal of animal figures. He said of his interest in writing animal characters, “…As time went on I developed the idea of writing a book humanizing animal characters without going either coy or slapstick in the process.”

One part of Eager’s reaction to the dearth of well-written children’s books that he perceived was to write some himself, the other part was to begin exploring the wider world of children’s literature. He set out on a search through children’s texts to find books that he and his son would like and it was through this search that he first encountered the works of E. Nesbit, who would become the most important influence on his writing. After coming across a copy of Wet Magic in 1947, Eager rapidly devoured all of Nesbit’s books and came to feel that she was truly the best writer for 9-12-year-olds. The enormity of Nesbit’s influence on Eager’s work cannot be ignored and no writing on Eager can avoid mentioning Nesbit’s works and his high regard for them. Eager himself never failed to mention the great debt that he owed Nesbit and he referenced her work in every one of his seven magic novels “so that any child who likes [his] books and doesn’t know hers may be led back to the master of us all.” The similarities of his novels to hers are purposeful, as he borrowed many of her ideas and attitudes toward children and magic. ... Maria Nikolajeva, who once criticized Eager for being too derivative, changes her opinion and says of Nesbit and Eager, “…instead of copying her, as some critics state, he gives witty replies to her ideas” and Joel D. Chaston says that Eager “…borrows elements from many stories, but reinvents them, making them into something unique.”

[...T]he enduring popularity of his seven [later] novels speaks to the fact that he resonates with children on his own terms. These seven novels were all written in a period spanning only nine years. Once Eager began writing them in 1954 with Half Magic, in which four bored Half Magic, Eager wrote his second novel, Knight’s Castle, in 1956. This book was not a direct sequel to Half Magic, but did feature characters that were the children of two of the siblings from his first novel. Magic by the Lake was published in 1957 and once again featured the original four siblings from Half Magic. This was followed by The Time Garden in 1958, which followed the further exploits of the characters from Knight’s Castle. His next two novels, Magic or Not? in 1959 and The Well-Wishers in 1960, were not connected to any of his previous novels except thematically. However, his last book, Seven-Day Magic returned briefly to the world of Half Magic when the protagonists are magically transported to the end of the story of Half Magic where they encounter the next children to use the magic coin after those featured in Half Magic. All seven of these novels featured illustrations by N. M. Bodecker and were published by Harcourt Brace in the United States and Macmillan in the United Kingdom.

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