Ginnie and the Mystery Doll


Ginnie and the Mystery Doll by Catherine Woolley, 1960.

Ginnie and Geneva’s families have rented a house on Cape Cod for the summer, so they’ll be sharing their vacation at the beach. Their next door neighbor at Cape Cod is Miss Wade, a nice older lady. Miss Wade’s house is very old-fashioned, and when the girls make friends with her, she shows it to them, allowing them to see some of the neat old things in her attic on a rainy day. The girls have fun trying on the old clothes in the attic, and then they find an old diary belonging to Miss Wade’s mother when she was a girl. In the diary, the girl talks about the special doll that her uncle gave her, which has a “precious jewel.”

GinnieMysteryDollDiaryAtticThe girls ask Miss Wade about the doll, and she says that she knows the one they mean, but she no longer has it. Her mother’s uncle was the captain of a ship and used to bring her presents from around the world. The doll, called Lady Vanderbilt, was very fancy, and Miss Wade describers her costume to the girls. However, she says that the doll disappeared after she rented her house out to a family one summer while she was traveling. She never found out what happened to the doll, but she assumed that the children of the family probably found her and either took her or broke her. Miss Wade said that she didn’t think that the doll was worth making a fuss about, so she never asked the family about it. The girls note that Miss Wade doesn’t seem to know anything about a precious jewel in the doll, but they decide not to say anything about it since Miss Wade doesn’t have the doll anymore.

The girls decide to concentrate on enjoying their summer vacation, picking beach plums and digging clams with Miss Wade on the beach. Then, when they go to see a local auction, they spot a doll that looks exactly like the Lady Vanderbilt that Miss Wade described! The girls try to bid on the doll at the auction, but someone else buys her instead, and that lady leaves the auction before the girls can talk to her.

GinnieMysteryDollJewelThe girls tell Miss Wade and their mothers about the doll, but when they try to ask the people in charge of the auction where the doll came from and who bought her, they learn that the woman who was in charge of organizing the toys has already left on vacation. The only clue that the girls have is that the woman who bought the doll left the auction in a red Jaguar.

The girls make it their mission to track down the doll and its buyer, asking questions all over town about who might own a red Jaguar. Then, at an art exhibit at the Historical Society, they make a surprising discovery: a painting of the very doll that they’re looking for!

But, just when they figure out who has the doll and where she is, she disappears again when the red Jaguar is stolen with Lady Vanderbilt inside! Was it just an accident that the doll was stolen along with the car, or does someone else know that Lady Vanderbilt might be hiding a valuable secret?


Katy Comes Next


Katy Comes Next by Laura Bannon, 1959.

Ruth is little girl whose parents own a doll hospital. She has always been proud and fascinated by how her parents can make old or damaged dolls beautiful again.


However, Ruth’s own beloved doll, Katy, is in need of repair herself. As her parents rush around repairing dolls for their customers, they keep assuring her that Katy’s turn will come next.


After being put off repeatedly, Ruth starts to think that poor Katy will never get the attention that she needs.


When Ruth’s parents realize how discouraged she is, they decide to take a day off for Katy to come first.


This was one of absolute favorites when I was little!  The pictures alternate between black and white and color and show the process that Ruth’s parents go through to repair Katy, repaint her features, and give her new hair and eyes.


Ruth also gets to pick out an entirely new wardrobe for Katy. I was always fascinated with the description of how Ruth’s parents fixed the doll, and I enjoyed imagining the doll clothes that I would have selected from the ones they showed in the pictures.  Making the choices is half the fun!



When Katy is finally finished, she looks beautiful, and Ruth is happy!  This is one of the many out of print children’s books that I wish would come back into print!


Hitty, Her First Hundred Years


Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field, 1929.

Sometimes, I debate about how much detail I should use when describing the plots of books, but since this is such an old book and a more recently released version has altered the events in Hitty’s life significantly, I’ve decided to cover it in detail.  I do not have the updated version and haven’t read it, so what I describe below is the older version.  The book is episodic in nature, following the life and travels of a small doll named Hitty.  For a more concise listing of Hitty’s various adventures, see this site.  This book is a Newbery Award winner.

These are the memoirs and adventures of a hundred-year-old wooden doll, which she writes as she lives in antique shop. She doesn’t recall exactly when she was made, but she knows that it was about a century earlier and that she was carved by a peddler in Maine for a little girl named Phoebe Preble.

HittyMemoirsThe peddler did some odd jobs for the Preble family on their farm that winter, while the weather was too bad for him to travel. They named the doll Mehitabel (a Biblical name from the Old Testament), and Phoebe nicknamed her Hitty. At her mother’s insistence, Phoebe made clothes for Hitty and embroidered Hitty’s name on the doll’s petticoat. Phoebe’s mother says that as long as she has her name on her clothes, she’ll always know what it is, whatever happens to her. Phoebe doesn’t see what could happen to Hitty because she wants to keep her forever, but Hitty is destined to live an adventurous life.

Phoebe misplaces Hitty more than once during their time together. The first time, she accidentally leaves her at church (when she wasn’t even supposed to bring her there in the first place). Then, Phoebe takes Hitty out to play one day, but she and her brother are frightened when they see some American Indians. (Phoebe lives in the early 1800s.) When they run away from the Indians, Phoebe accidentally leaves Hitty behind. Then, Hitty is picked up by a curious crow and carried to the tree next to the Preble house. She hangs from a tree branch for awhile before they realize that she is there and rescue her.

HittyShipwreckedThen, Phoebe’s father, who is the captain of a whaling ship, convinces his family to join him on a voyage. Life aboard ship turns out to be both exciting and perilous. One day, the ship catches fire, and the Preble family and all the crew abandon it. Hitty, once again, is unfortunately left behind. Although Hitty sees Phoebe gesture back at the ship and knows that Phoebe wants to return for her, it is too late for that.

However, luck is with Hitty, and instead of being burned, she is washed overboard as the ship goes down. Miraculously, she is washed ashore and found once again by the Preble family, who are now castaways on an island. They hope for rescue but fear the “natives” on the island. (Yep. “Savages”, “natives”, etc. These are sadly a common feature in vintage children’s literature. See Edward Eager’s Magic by the Lake for a funnier spoof version. The scene in this book is the sort of generic “savage natives” or “native savages” scenes he was making fun of, except that nobody tries any silly ooga-booga talk to communicate with them, and they don’t turn out to be cannibals. But, it does occur to me that if this book had been written in modern times, people would have insisted that the author give the proper name for the civilization on this island instead of just calling them “natives” and thoroughly research their actual habits and customs and present them in an informative, realistic way for the education of children reading this book.  Keep this in mind the next time someone tells you that younger generations are lazier and not as well-educated.)

One day, the natives come to have a look at the castaways, and their leader catches sight of Hitty and demands (through gestures) that she be handed over to him. Phoebe doesn’t want to give up her doll, but her father tells her that she has to. It turns out that the natives think that Hitty might be an idol that gives the castaways power, which is why they want it for themselves. Hitty is taken back to the natives’ village, and they use her as an idol themselves, making a little shrine to house her.

Hitty probably would have remained there if she had not been stolen from the temple by some curious monkeys and once again found by members of the Prebles’ party, who return the doll to Phoebe. Fortunately, the family sees a passing ship and manages to get rescued before the natives can come after Hitty again.

However, Hitty’s adventures are still not over. The ship that rescues them is going to India, and unfortunately, this is where Hitty and Phoebe are permanently separated when Phoebe loses her in a bazaar. Instead of being found by Phoebe or her family again, Hitty is found by a snake charmer, who uses her in his act, positioned near the snake. Even though Hitty is made of wood, she still finds the experience frightening.

From this point on (we’re about halfway through the story), Hitty changes hands repeatedly, gaining and losing owners every few years or so. Most of her new owners give Hitty a change of clothes, but they always keep her petticoat with her name still embroidered on it, so as Mrs. Preble once said, Hitty and her new owners always know her name.

An American missionary couple spot Hitty with the snake charmer and realize that her design looks like dolls in America. They have no idea how she got to India, but they buy her from the snake charmer and give her to their daughter, Thankful. Hitty lives with Thankful for a couple of years, and she enjoys her time with her, even though she really misses Phoebe.

HittyOtherDollsThen, Thankful gets sick, and her parents decide that it might be time to send her home to the United States to stay with her grandparents. Thankful takes Hitty with her when she goes home to Philadelphia. Because Thankful’s early life was spent entirely in India, she has been unaccustomed to spending time with American girls her age, and she doesn’t know how to behave around the American children she meets when she first arrives in Philadelphia.  When the some of these (still 19th century) American girls first meet Thankful and Hitty, they think that Thankful is strange and make fun of her for her unusual habits and the way she dresses, telling her that her doll is ugly, too. Hitty has to admit that she isn’t as fancy as the other girls’ dolls. Thankful is so embarrassed by what the other girls say that she decides to hide Hitty in a sofa. After that, the sofa is taken up to an attic for storage, so Hitty remains hidden for a number of years.

HittyQuakerDuring her time in the attic, Hitty resents Thankful for abandoning her, in spite of all the charitable talk of her missionary parents. However, when Thankful is grown, Hitty is finally found by one of Thankful’s younger cousins, Clarissa Pryce, who really appreciates her. She doesn’t know how Hitty came to be in the attic, but thanks to the name still embroidered on Hitty’s petticoat, knows what to call her. Clarissa is a quiet, conscientious girl in a family of Quakers. She dresses Hitty as a Quaker girl, and Hitty lives with her for many happy years, learning to write as Clarissa goes through her schooling.

By now, the time of the Civil War is approaching, and Clarissa’s family are abolitionists. Hitty doesn’t really understand what the war was about, but she remembers being with Clarissa and watching soldiers march off to war. (This is where the updated version of the book differs greatly.  In the older version, Hitty doesn’t witness the war directly, but in the newer one, she does when she is sent to Charleston.)

Eventually, Clarissa gets older and is sent away to boarding school. Hitty is put into storage for awhile and then sent to the Pryces’ relatives in New York, along with some other things. But, Hitty’s package is misdirected and ends up being delivered to the wealthy Van Rensselaer family by accident. There, she is found by Milly Pinch, a seamstress doing some sewing for the Van Rensselaer family. Miss Pinch makes some stylish new clothes for Hitty, although she still lets her keep the petticoat with her name on it.

The Van Rensselaers’ young daughter, Isabella, sneaks into Miss Pinch’s room one day and finds Hitty, and a debate ensues about who really owns her. Mr. Van Rensselaer, on hearing where Miss Pinch found Hitty, says that rightfully, Hitty belongs to their family but that the clothes she is wearing are obviously Miss Pinch’s because she made them. Miss Pinch is gratified that he is being fair about it, but because Isabella really wants both the doll and clothes together, the family purchases them from Miss Pinch and gives her an excellent employment recommendation for her sewing.

Isabella is rather spoiled and has several dolls already, but she genuinely likes Hitty and takes care of her. Unlike Thankful, she even speaks up for Hitty when others say disparaging things about her plainness. While living with Isabella, Hitty even gets the chance to meet Charles Dickins. However, Hitty is stolen from Isabella by a gang of mean boys.

One of the boys in the youth gang takes the doll home with him and gives her to his younger cousin, Katie. The family is poor, but Katie loves her and gives her plenty of attention. When Katie gets sick and goes to live in the country for awhile, Hitty is accidentally lost in some hay and spends a long time in the barn, living with the mice.

When she is finally found, a pair of traveling artists are staying at the farm, and one of them keeps her to use as an artist’s model. He uses her to amuse children when he paints their portraits and even adds her into still life paintings. Hitty worries about how her painted features have faded, but the artist thinks that she’s much easier to paint than newer china dolls because the light doesn’t glare off of her. She stays with him for many years, while he travels around the country, but he eventually leaves her with a pair of spinster ladies, Miss Hortense and Miss Annette, in New Orleans when he rents a room from them.

HittyBrideWhile living with these ladies, Hitty learns that Miss Annette’s fiancé died young, fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and she still feels bitterly toward the North because of it. From her time with Clarissa, Hitty knows that many people in the North could say the same about the South, but of course, she can’t actually say so out loud. The ladies make new clothes for Hitty, dressing her as a bride, with her clothes made from an heirloom handkerchief, and put her on display at the Cotton Exposition (aka the 1884 World’s Fair). From there, Hitty is stolen by a little girl named Sally, whose father is the captain of a riverboat that carries cotton up and down the Mississippi River.

Hitty learns that Sally is a lonely child who travels with her father frequently because her mother is an invalid and cannot always take care of her. Sally knows that it was wrong for her to steal Hitty, but she so badly needs a companion that she is even willing to risk jail if it means that she can keep Hitty. However, after attending a revival meeting where there are warnings against the evils of theft and getting caught in a sudden thunderstorm, Sally panics, thinking that God may be about to strike her down for her sins, and throws Hitty into the river. (I found this scene a little disturbing because, when Sally fears that God will smite her with lightning for stealing, she not only makes a desperate apology but asks if anyone has to be struck, couldn’t it be one of the newly-baptized kids, who are sinless and would know that they were going to heaven?  The fearful apology is understandable, but it’s a little disturbing to hear this little girl try to throw someone else under the bus like that.)

From the river, Hitty is rescued by a couple of black boys (the book says “Negro” because it was written in the 1920s) who are fishing. One of them gives Hitty to his sister, “Car’line.” (Her name is probably really Caroline, but Hitty just says the name as she hears it, and the boys have a Southern accent. This is one of those books where they try to give the impression of accents with odd spellings like, “How you come by dat doll?” It’s not the worst example I’ve seen of this, but I have to admit that I’ve never really liked the use of odd spellings like that.) Car’line’s family is the poorest one that Hitty has ever lived with, with a fairly sizable family living in a small cabin. However, Hitty likes the way Car’line treats her and how close her family is, and she loves the music that they sometimes play and the old spirituals that they sing.

At Christmas, Car’line’s family goes to a big party at a house that was apparently once an old plantation. The wealthier owners of the house give presents to the poor children of the area, like Car’line. While they are at the party, one of the women at the house, Miss Hope, recognizes Hitty from a newspaper report that a doll in heirloom clothing had disappeared from the Exposition in New Orleans. Car’line is upset when Miss Hope tells her that the doll really belongs to someone else and should be returned, but Miss Hope understands Car’line’s feelings toward Hitty and soothes her by giving her the doll she had played with as a child, a fancy French doll named Mignonette, as a replacement for Hitty.

As the end of the book draws closer, Hitty changes hands more often than before, and she doesn’t describe her time with new owners in as much detail, partly because her new owners tend to be adults and mostly display her, not play with her. Miss Hope attempts to return Hitty to the ladies in New Orleans, but since the heirloom handkerchief clothes are ruined, they decide that she should really be returned to the artist who had her before. When they try to mail Hitty to his address in New York, it turns out that he has moved without leaving an accurate forwarding address. Hitty spends some time as a package in the postal service, ending up in the dead letter office, where she is sold off, along with other undeliverable packages, to people who are willing to take a chance that there might be something interesting or valuable in them. She doesn’t spend much time with the man who bought her because her package is accidentally left behind at a tobacconist’s shop, where she is accidentally delivered to a house with an order of pipes. The lady of the house has been wanting to try a craft project for turning a doll into a pincushion, so she adds padding to Hitty and puts some pins in her (terrifying but not actually painful for Hitty). From there, Hitty is sold at a craft sale, where she is bought as a present for someone’s great aunt. The great aunt doesn’t think much of the pincushion, but her friend collects dolls and recognizes that Hitty is a collectable. For awhile, Hitty lives happily with the friend as part of her collection, until she is lost out of a car on her very first automobile ride. Then, she lays alone in the countryside, fearful that this is going to be the end for her, until she is found and rescued by some picnickers.

HittyCollectableIt is at this point that Hitty learns something astonishing: not only is she now about a hundred years old, but she has actually managed to make it back to her home state of Maine. To her further astonishment, she even returns to the Preble house where she originally lived, which is now the summer home of an elderly woman. Hitty knows that it’s far too late for her to have any hope of seeing Phoebe Preble again, and she never learns what exactly happened to Phoebe in her later life (which I thought was kind of a shame, bu it fits with the story of a doll, drifting from one owner to the next, unable to control her destiny or ask any question of the people around her). The elderly lady collects antiques, and Hitty becomes a part of her collection, although the lady has no idea that this is Hitty’s original home.

Eventually, the elderly lady dies (it’s implied, but not stated – one summer, she simply never comes back), and her collection is auctioned off. Hitty is again surprised when she discovers that people view her as a valuable antique now. An Old Gentleman buys her at the auction, and when he takes her with him to New York, he comments that he supposes that it’s probably the first time she’s been outside of Maine and that her travels are about to begin. Hitty is amused.

At the end of the story, it is revealed that the Old Gentleman has purchased her for Miss Hunter’s antique shop, which is where she is now writing her memoirs. Miss Hunter and the Old Gentleman are delighted by Hitty and consider her a “museum piece.” Even though they could sell her, they don’t seem anxious to do so. She has become their shop’s mascot, and many people who visit the shop like to say hello to Hitty. Still, Hitty knows from her experiences that change is a part of life, and she is looking forward to seeing more changes in the world around her and the new adventures she may have with future owners!

In some ways, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this story.  The length may seem a little daunting at first (262 pages about the adventures of a doll!), but the reading time is faster than you think, partly because of the episodic nature of Hitty’s life.  Books that are episodic can sometimes be a drag because, no sooner are the characters out of one situation, they plunge straight into another.  If it isn’t done right, it can leave the reader feeling like it’s all getting tiresome and repetitive and wondering where it’s all heading.  It’s a little different with Hitty, partly because the writing quality is good and partly because her owners and their lives are so varied.  I didn’t think much of the whole “natives” episode (because I never like “savage native” scenes in anything), but her other owners are a eclectic range of people, young and old, who have different interests and uses for Hitty.  Hitty ends up in some worrying situations, but you can feel reassured (because these are her memoirs that she is writing during the course of the story) that she is going to be all right in the end.

Hitty is unable to move around much on her own, which is part of the reason why she moves from place to place because of accidents or intentionally being carried or shipped by people.  However, she does seem to have the ability to move by herself in some small ways, such as writing her memoirs and when she tries to imitate Isabella’s dancing lessons, only to discover that she can’t quite do it because a doll’s legs aren’t jointed in the same way that human ones are.

Apart from the “savage native” scene, I don’t think the book was too bad, racially speaking.  I can’t recall any really objectionable terms being used.  Black people, when they appear, are called either “black” or “Negro”, and nothing insulting is said about them.  They are not treated cruelly in the course of the story.  Hitty enjoys her time as Car’line’s doll and doesn’t think badly of her or hold her in lesser esteem than other owners because she was poor.  The people in India aren’t described too badly, either, although Hitty thinks that the snake charmer was weird, and she seems to think well of the Indian nurse who took care of Thankful.  Thankful’s parents never discover that the Indian nurse gave her additional herbal remedies when she was ill, but Hitty appreciates the nurse’s devotion to the girl, doing everything she could to help her.  Hitty even says that she doesn’t know which medicines helped Thankful the most or if it was really the combination of all of them that saved her from her illness.

Some of Hitty’s owners are obviously nicer than others, with Thankful being arguably among the worst of them.  Even though Thankful’s upbringing is very religious, she and her new American friends are apparently rather shallow and thoughtless.  Even though her new “friends” in Philadelphia aren’t even nice to her, Thankful still worries about how she looks to them and is ready to chuck her beloved doll to please them.  Even spoiled little Isabella takes better care of Hitty and is more loyal to her, standing up to mean people as best she can instead of trying to appease them.

Mostly, Hitty prefers to be owned by young girls because she likes it when they play with her and carry her around, but she does enjoy being with adults who pay attention to her and treat her as a personality instead of as a mere object.  I was glad that none of the children Hitty lives with dies young, which could have been a risk in real life but would have been tragic.  Even with the elderly owner who presumably died, which was probably why her collection was being auctioned, Hitty never sees her die and doesn’t explicitly know that she is dead.  Whether Hitty will ever be owned as a child again now that she is considered an antique is unknown, but the author leaves the end of the story open, so just about anything could happen in Hitty’s future.

In a way, though, Hitty’s fate is already known.  The Great Cranberry Island Historical Society (Great Cranberry Island is the part of Maine where Hitty is supposed to have come from, and the Preble house is a real house) discusses the origins of Hitty’s story on their site and explains that the story was based on a real doll that the author found in an antique store.  This doll is now at the Stockbridge Library Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. There is also a cafe that is named after Hitty. There are fan sites dedicated to Hitty, some of which have tips for creating a doll very much like her.

Seven-Day Magic

SevenDayMagicSeven-Day Magic by Edward Eager, 1962.

John and Susan are brother and sister, living in a perfectly ordinary town in Connecticut. They are tall, good-looking, and good in school and at sports, so they are generally popular and are often chosen for positions like class president. However, their home life is unusual because they are orphans who live with their grandmother, who sometimes requires them to look after her as much as she looks after them. Their grandmother isn’t very strong, but she is spirited and is sometimes tempted to do things that she probably shouldn’t do at her age, like climbing trees. Because John and Susan feel like they have to look after their grandmother, it’s sometimes difficult for them to get out and do some of the things that other children their age are doing, like going to parties. They’re glad when Barnaby and his sisters move to a house nearby because they make life more exciting.

SevenDayMagicChildrenBarnaby and his sisters, Abigail (called Abbie) and Fredericka, become friends with John and Susan. Their father is a singer in advertisements, and their mother is a realtor. Because their parents work a lot to make ends meet, the children are often left to their own devices.  Barnaby is opinionated, stubborn, and sometimes hot-tempered, which causes him to get into fights at school, but John likes him because he’s imaginative and full of interesting ideas.

Barnaby wants to be a writer. He’s secretly writing a story of his own, and he encourages the others to read more. Before meeting Barnaby, John hardly read anything at all, and Susan was mostly into the Sue Barton books, about a young woman who becomes a nurse (a real series that was popular in the mid-20th century, realistic fiction). Barnaby introduces them to a whole new world of fantasy stories, full of adventure. One day, while visiting the library together, the children talk about the kinds of stories that they like and wish that they could find a really good book full of magic and kids that are like themselves. Their wish comes true in a peculiar way.

On impulse, Susan checks out a rather worn-looking book with a red cover, not really knowing what it’s about but thinking that it just looked kind of interesting. The librarian seems a little uneasy when she takes it and warns her that she can only keep that particular book for seven days, which is surprising because that’s the limit usually imposed on new books, not old ones.

On the way home, the children show each other what they got and read parts of their books aloud to each other. When Susan opens the red book, they are all startled to find out that the book is about them. It starts out just like the real life book and tells about their lives and backgrounds and has their conversation about books they like, word-for-word. The children can tell that this is a magic book, but even while the idea is thrilling, it makes them uneasy. There is nothing written beyond their conversation about books, and the book won’t let them turn pages to see what might come next or how their story will end.

As much as the children like the idea of being the stars of their own magical book, it’s worrying. They don’t know what they’re in store for, and they even worry briefly that maybe their entire lives are fictional, that they might just exist in someone’s imagination, although they don’t really believe that because they can remember their lives before the story began. Barnaby points out that the book specifically mentions that he and his sisters recently moved to the area, but he remembers having lived elsewhere before that.

The children carefully consider everything they had originally wished for in a book: that children, just like themselves, would be walking home from somewhere and a magical adventure would start before they even realized that it was happening and that they would have to figure out the rules of the magic in order to use it for their own purposes. Since the first part of their wish has literally (very literally) come true, they decide that they’re going to have to figure out what the rules of this magic are before they decide what to do next. Since looking ahead in the book seems to be against the rules, they decide that they will have to be very careful about anything they wish for next because their wishes seem to be what writes the story, and they need to discuss it first and come to an agreement about it.

SevenDayMagicDragonUnfortunately, little Fredericka (the youngest of the children) is too impatient for discussion and immediately wishes for an adventure with wizards, witches, and magic, and she wants it to start right away so that they’ll know that the magic is really working. A minute later, a dragon suddenly appears and scoops up Fredericka, flying away with her!

The others try to figure out where the dragon came from, and it turns out that a stage magician who lives nearby was practicing his act at the time that Fredericka made her wish. When she wished for a magical adventure, the rabbit that the magician was supposed to pull out of his hat turned out to be a dragon. The magician, The Great Oswaldo, is mystified, but he’s destined to play the part of Fredericka’s requested wizard. The children ask him to help them, and he says he’ll try, although he’s not sure how.

As Oswaldo tries various tricks in his magic supplies, they don’t work in the way they usually do. Finally, he is able to make his landlady’s house fly after the dragon, much to the landlady’s horror (she’s cast in the role of the witch in Fredericka’s story). In the magical land where the dragon lives, the peasants inform them that the dragon is always carrying off girls and young women to eat them, and they have to think of something fast before Fredericka becomes his next meal!

This is where the children discover that the contents of the magical book change depending on who reads it. When the magician reads it, it’s full of magic spells. When the landlady, Mrs. Funkhouser, takes it from him, it has household hints. For the dragon, it’s all about dragons. Surprisingly, it’s Mrs. Funkhouser’s household hints that save the day, although it’s Oswaldo who gets most of the credit because one of his pet cats eats the dragon after Mrs. Funkhouser shrinks it.

Oswaldo and Mrs. Funkhouser decide to stay in the magic land (which the children think might actually be Oz, in its early days), where they are hailed as heroes, sending the children home by themselves with the help of Mrs. Funkhouser’s vanishing cream. As expected, this adventure is now written in the magic book when the children have another look at it (although Fredericka argues that the illustrations don’t really do her justice).

SevenDayMagicCoinSusan, as the borrower of the book, says that she wants their next adventure to be calmer, the kind of everyday magic that just creeps up on you. This is the part of the story where it crosses over with the events in Half Magic (another book in the same series as this one). In these children’s world, Half Magic is a fictional book that they’ve read and liked. Susan’s requested adventure picks up where Half Magic left off, explaining what happened after the other four children (Jane, Mark, Katharine, and Martha) left their magic coin to be discovered by a new owner. Susan and her friends delight in explaining to the young girl who found the coin what it does. The girl says that she had thought that the coin might be magic, but was confused because she didn’t get her wish to go into the future and meet some other children. Because the coin only grants wishes by halves (interpreting that pretty liberally), Susan and her friends (who live in the future), came to meet her instead.

Once again (as is common in this series), it leaves the matter of what is fiction and what is reality open to question. Was it the girl’s wish that brought the other children to her, or their wish that took them into her story? Or Both? Was that fantasy story secretly real, or are Susan and her friends more fictional than they like to think? The author likes posing questions like this, but of course, you never completely know the answers, and in some ways, it hardly matters because the adventure doesn’t require anyone’s understanding for them to take place, which is something that, ironically, it has in common with real life – things frequently happen regardless of whether or not you understand the reasons why. Sometimes, figuring out how things work and to deal with them is about all you can do, never getting the complete “why” behind everything.  That’s pretty much how all the stories in this series go.

After the children explain to the girl what the coin is and how it’s supposed to work, she makes a more careful, doubled wish to go to the future with the other children. Unfortunately, when they get there, she panics when she realizes that she forgot to bring her one-year-old baby brother with her and makes a hurried half-wish for him to be there, too.   Because she didn’t wish right, what she gets is her brother at the age he would be in the other children’s time (about age 37) but still mentally the baby he was back in 1924 (the girl’s time). The “baby” is amazed when he realizes that suddenly he can walk and talk much better than he could before and that he’s suddenly much bigger and stronger than he used to be. He gets hold of the coin and refuses to give it back, telling his little “big” sister that he can do what he wants now, not what she tells him to do. Noting that he can even pick her up and carry her around now, he does that, with the others chasing after him to get the charm and bring him under control. (A somewhat similar incident, where a baby grows up too fast and is dangerously immature, happens in E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It – another instance of Edward Eager playing off her books.)

It’s chaos for awhile because a 37-year-old man who acts like a 1-year-old can’t help but attract attention, especially when he gets it into his head that he wants to drive a train. Eventually, they get the “baby” back under control and to his proper age, allowing his sister to take him back to their own time and plan her future adventures with the coin.

Then, Susan and John’s grandmother gets hold of the book, and it takes her and her grandchildren back in time, to when the grandmother was a young woman working as a prairie schoolteacher. Susan makes a wish for the other children to join them, and they help their grandmother and her students to survive a sudden blizzard. They come to appreciate their grandmother’s youthful personality and formidable spirit even more from the experience. They even get to meet their grandfather, who died before they were born, seeing him rescue their grandmother and her students when he was a young man.

SevenDayMagicPlaywrightThen, Abbie decides that she wants to try to help her father’s singing career. He typically has to work long hours and never makes very much money, just being part of the chorus on advertisements. She thinks things will be so much better if they can help him to be discovered as a great talent. The others are kind of doubtful about her plan because the book seems to send them on rather “bookish” adventures, related to other stories they’ve read or people’s memories, like in their grandmother’s case because her early life actually did somewhat resemble things from the Little House on the Prairie series (a series which the grandmother enjoys reading for that reason). The other children just don’t know what would happen if Abbie tries to use the book for something more modern and everyday, like their father’s career. She tries it anyway, with some unpredictable results.

During a recording at a television studio (which the children are present to witness), the magic makes their father sing wonderfully but he also does his singing part out of sync with the other singers. He’s sure that he is singing his part at the right time, but for some reason, the other members of the chorus are silent when he sings. The director gets mad at him for singing out of sync and messing up the performance, and the singer who was supposed to be the star gets mad about being upstaged, but the reviewers end up loving the performance. So, while at first it looks like the father is going to be fired, he ends up with more singing parts because of the episode. The only problem is that all the singing parts are silly jingles, like the typical advertising jingles he gets. While he’d welcome more money, he always dreamed of being able to get better parts. However, the magic isn’t quite done, yet. When Abbie meets a playwright who is looking for a new talent to sing in his play, it turns out that he has seen Abbie’s father on tv and likes his voice.

SevenDayMagicWingsAbbie’s wish is so great and does so much for their family that the kids start thinking that it might be the end of the magic. The seven days are really up, and the book has to go back to the library the next day. However, John and Barnaby haven’t had their chance to wish yet, and each of them wants to have a turn before the book goes back. Barnaby even suggests that perhaps they can keep the book an extra day, turning it in late. Surely a little late fee isn’t too much to ask for an extra day of magic, is it? Abbie is afraid, though, that keeping the book overdue would be breaking the rules and that the magic might go all wrong. She’s right.

Even with the idea of keeping the book for extra time, John and Barnaby argue over which of them will get to go first. The book’s magic, angry about not being returned to the library, turns sour on them, causing them to fight. John angrily tells Barnaby that just because he’s usually the group’s idea man doesn’t mean that he’s the only one who’s allowed to have ideas. (Which, in a way, is something that Barnaby needs to hear because that’s part of the reason why he often gets into fights – he always thinks he knows best.) John and Barnaby fight over the book, and the book gets torn. John ends up with a few pages, and Barnaby gets most of the book, which he uses to make a wish that he refuses to tell to the others. Barnaby disappears, and the others realize that the pages that Barnaby is holding are the last few pages from the end of the book, still blank. Without them, the book can’t end, and Barnaby could end up stuck in the book forever! Can the others find him and get him (and the book) back before it’s too late?

Before the end of the book, John does prove that, although he might not be as quick to come up with ideas as Barnaby is, he does get good ones. After he and the others find Barnaby, John uses his wish to get them back home and to return the book to the library in a most unusual way.  (Actually two unusual ways because he couldn’t quite make up his mind about which was best.  Both of them are homages to incidents in E. Nesbit’s books.)

Magic or Not


Magic or Not? By Edward Eager, 1959.

Laura and her twin brother, James, are practical children who are fond of useful facts, but still have imaginations and appreciate fantasy stories. In this part of the Tales of Magic series, all of the previous books in the series are fictional books that the characters have read and enjoyed, and real magic may or may not exist, as the title suggests. All throughout their coming adventures, the children are never quite sure how much of what happens is magic and how much isn’t, but they’re bound for an amazing summer.

Laura and James’s family has recently bought a house in the country, and the story begins with the twins taking the train to their new town while their parents follow in the car with their luggage and their baby sister, Deborah. Laura and James haven’t seen the new house yet, but they know that it’s pretty old, and they speculate if it could be haunted or maybe even magical, like something from a fantasy story. James doesn’t think so.  He thinks that magic, if it existed, is a thing of the past. Then, a strange girl on the train tells them that magic does exist. She insists that her grandmother is a witch and makes a comment about how they should “drop a wish in the wishing well, and wait and see!”

MagicNotWishingWellLaura and James don’t know what she means, but it turns out that there is an old well on the property of their new house. James ignores it, but Laura can’t resist giving the wishing thing a try. After struggling to come up with something appropriate to wish for, she finally writes a note that says, “I wish I had a kitten” and tosses it into the well. The next day, when they meet the boy next door, Kip (short for Christopher), they find a basket with two kittens in it sitting on the edge of the well. Kip figures that Lydia found the note that Laura wrote in the well bucket and decided to make her wish come true by leaving a couple of stray kittens for her.

It turns out that the girl from the train is Lydia Green. Kip says that she lives nearby with her grandmother. Lydia’s grandmother is an artist, and both of them are eccentrics. Lydia is kind of a wild child who likes to spend her time riding around on her black horse. She’s something of an outcast in the community, and she knows it. When the other children go to see her to ask about the kittens, Lydia seems prepared for them not to like her and for her not to like them, either. However, when she finds out that Laura’s names for the kittens were inspired by the book The Midnight Folk, she warms up to them because she also likes fantasy stories, and Laura offers to share the magic of the well with her.

MagicNotLydiaJames is more skeptical about Lydia and insists that she prove that there’s magic around, if her grandmother is really a witch. Lydia is reluctant at first, but then she shows the other children her grandmother’s garden. She insists that one of the plants in the messy garden (which does look like it might belong to a witch) can bring visions when it’s burned and maybe even a visitor from another world. (Sounds trippy.) The others want to see it work, so they decide to burn some. Nothing happens, and when James demands to know how long they have to wait, Lydia gives a vague answer that it might not be the right time or that maybe she just made the whole thing up. James believes the second explanation, but Laura is willing to give Lydia (and magic) more of a chance.

The two girls bond over their shared love of fantasy stories, and Laura invites Lydia to come to their house the next day. The boys admit to Laura that they kind of like Lydia, although she’d be easier to get along with if she didn’t have such a chip on her shoulder. Kip says that she’s always like that, and that’s why kids at school don’t get along with her either.  Even so, Lydia is an interesting person.

When Kip gets home, he finds more of the strange plant that Lydia burned growing around his house, and his mother tells him that it’s an ordinary wildflower. Still, the next day, something happens which makes it seem like Lydia’s notion that it “makes unseen things appear and seen things disappear” has come true – the old lawnmower that came with the house is now missing, and there’s a young tree on the property that wasn’t there before. Coincidence? Maybe, but Lydia had also said that it could “transform people so they’re unrecognizable overnight”, and suddenly little Deborah has a new, weird haircut. When Deborah happily announces that she’s been transformed by magic, James realizes that it’s a trick and that Kip arranged everything. Lydia is angry that Kip was playing a joke, but he says that it isn’t really a joke, that he just wanted to keep the game going. Lydia says that it isn’t really a game to her, although she finally admits that she left the kittens.

Laura turns on the boys and says that it’s obvious that Lydia only did those things because she wanted to make friends. Lydia tries to deny it at first, but then admits that it’s true, but that she is never able to make friends and that she doesn’t know how. Laura says that she is Lydia’s friend, and the boys are, too. James agrees, saying that he just likes “to get the facts straight,” but now that the facts are known, he hopes that they can all start over again. The children each apologize to one another for the awkwardness, and Laura says that she is a little disappointed that there isn’t any real magic.

MagicNotIsabellaThis part could be a story all by itself, but, not so fast! Just as the children are making amends with each other, a strange woman comes up to them in a horse-drawn carriage, looking like a visitor from another world in strange, old-fashioned clothing. They ask her if she came because they wished for her, and she says it’s difficult to say, but wonders why they would think so. The children say that they were playing a game and wished for a visitor from another world. The woman says that, in a way, she is from another world. She says that when she lived in this same valley, when she was young, life was very different, so it’s like she has come from the past to the present. The woman, Isabella King, lives in a house by the old silver mine. She invites the children to come and visit her sometime to have some of her silver cake and see the old mine. After she leaves, the children debate whether Isabella was brought to them by magic, but James says that it doesn’t matter because it looks like they’re going to have an adventure, magical or not.

Isabella King really does like to live in the past, maintaining her house and the old, disused silver mine that her father left her in the way that she’s sure he would want them to be maintained. However, her house and mine are threatened when the bank announces that it will foreclose on the mortgage. The children badly want to help Miss King, so they decide to go see the banker, Hiram Bundy, about it and try to persuade him to give her some leniency. Before they go to see him, Laura decides to make another wish on the wishing well because, in spite of Lydia’s earlier confession, she thinks that the well still might be magic.

Hiram Bundy agrees to talk to the children partly because he enjoys Lydia’s grandmother’s paintings, but he tells them that money isn’t the only concern about Miss King. Her family has a reputation for getting “peculiar” as they get older, and people have voiced concerns to him that Miss King is no longer capable of handling her own affairs and that she might be better off living in a nursing home. The children angrily deny that Miss King is mentally incompetent, giving him some of the cake that Miss King had baked for them as proof that she is still capable of doing things. Miss King is an excellent baker, and Mr. Bundy admits that he is impressed. Lydia also finally speaks up about the way the people in town, including Mr. Bundy himself, look at her and other people who are eccentrics. Lydia’s grandmother is allowed to be eccentric because she’s a talented artist and people make allowances for her, but those same people look at Lydia as if she’s terrible just because she likes to spend time by herself, riding her horse around. Adults in town are always saying that she’s a disgrace and that “somebody ought to do something” about her just because she doesn’t like things that other people like and wants to live her own life, doing her own thing. It’s not that there’s really anything wrong with either Lydia or Miss King so much as some of the people in town simply don’t like them and the way they do things. Because they aren’t the town’s little darlings, they are unfairly characterized as being worse than they really are and ostracized. Mr. Bundy admits the hypocrisy, which he is also guilty of, and assures her that he will take responsibility and straighten things out with Miss King.

When the children later see Mr. Bundy having cake and talking with Miss King at her house, Laura remembers that part of her wish at the well had been that Miss King would have Mr. Bundy eating out of her hand, and once again, the wish seems to have come true, literally. Although it still isn’t positive proof that Mr. Bundy’s change of heart was due to the well’s magic, the children think it might have been.  They start considering that perhaps the well came through for them because they were doing a good deed, and perhaps they ought to try to do the same for others, thrilling in the apparent power they have to change people’s lives.

MagicNotLostHeirTesting out their theory proves difficult at first because they have trouble finding another person with a problem for them to solve. At first, the only person who seems to want their help is the woman downtown who asks them to help with setting up for a local art show to encourage amateur artists. The art show is open to anyone in town, and the kids think that maybe they should enter it, too.  However, the only art supplies that they can afford are paper and crayons, and only Lydia manages to draw something that’s any good.  Lydia doesn’t particularly like her drawing, saying it’s just a doodle, but Laura stops her from throwing it away. Then, the clerk at the store asks them if the small boy in the store is their little brother. It appears that the little boy is lost, so they decide that their good deed for the day will be helping him to get home.

They do find the boy’s home, and he turns out to be the child of a wealthy family who wandered off while his nurse was talking to a friend in town and ignoring him. The nurse at first blames the children for kidnapping the boy when they come to return him. The boy’s father doesn’t believe that, but he does reprimand the children for taking all day to return him because they had wanted to find his house themselves with the help of the wishing well instead of the police and allowed themselves to be sidetracked with something else they had also wanted to do. In the end, the children question how much they really helped the “lost heir”, as they think of him, because he might have been found sooner without their interference. However, one good thing does come out of their adventures: Lydia wins a prize in the art contest because Laura entered her picture on her behalf.

Lydia (as Laura had expected) is at first angry that Laura entered her in the contest without her permission, but Laura explains to her that she’s realized something about Lydia: Lydia prefers to think that no one cares about her or will ever appreciate her because she fears their rejection too much to risk trying to do anything that might earn their approval. Laura points out that their interest in her art proves that people really do appreciate her. Lydia’s grandmother even apologizes for not realizing before that Lydia has artistic talent. Lydia is amazed because she never really thought of her doodles as being anything special before. Kids at school had always made fun of her “crazy pictures,” and her teacher had always insisted that she “paint from nature” instead of drawing what she really wanted to draw.

MagicNotFriendsBut, the children aren’t done with the wishing well yet. Mrs. Witherspoon, the head of the local garden club and self-appointed arbiter of all that’s right and what everyone should think and do, has set herself against the new school that is planned for the area. She doesn’t like the idea of more traffic, more kids running around, and the possible risk to property values. However, many families with children live in the area, and they really want the school for their kids. Mrs. Witherspoon has set herself against them because she’s accustomed to people simply agreeing with what she wants (often just out of habit). She’s one of the big voices that enforces conformity in their town. She’s so awful that the kids consider making a voodoo doll of her, but then, it occurs to them that she might be much worse if she were actually in pain instead of just busy being one. They decide maybe she really needs people to be extra nice to her in order to make her more agreeable, but she refuses to accept any of their gestures of kindness because she thinks that they just want money from her, and she calls them juvenile delinquents. Can the power of the wishing well do anything to change her mind? Or, do they really need it?

A surprising friendship with Mrs. Witherspoon’s son, Gordy, leads the children on one last adventure that may (or may not) involve a ghost from the past and answer the question of whether or not the wishing well is really magic (unless there’s another explanation).

All through the book, there are other explanations besides magic for everything that happens. In fact, the wishing well may not do anything aside from acting as a source of inspiration for the children. Mr. Bundy might have been influenced by the children’s arguments even without the well, but the well is what influenced them to become friends with Isabella King and try to help her in the first place. Similarly, Lydia was always talented in art; it was just that no one recognized it until Laura was inspired to enter her drawing in the art show. The strangest episode takes place at the end of the book, when the children supposedly meet the ghost of the woman who may have made the well magic in the first place, but even then, the children realize that the “ghost” may have been the work of someone else, perhaps part of a conspiracy on the part of the people they’ve been helping all summer. However, it’s never established one way or the other, so it’s up to the readers’ imaginations to decide.

Much of the story is about fitting in and finding friends. In the beginning, Lydia was the main outcast in the community, but it turns out that many others, including Gordy, in spite of his mother’s social status, don’t quite fit in, either. In fact, it seems that perhaps more people in town would have liked Lydia more and encouraged her in her art if she had ever felt confident enough before to let people really get to know her. However, here I have to say that it was really the townspeople’s fault for driving her away in the first place. For a long time, Lydia had lost confidence in other people and in her ability to make friends because of the way people treated her. That was why Lydia sometimes purposely acted strange and didn’t try to get people to like her; she was already pretty firmly convinced that they didn’t and never would. It was just the message that everyone seemed to be sending her, and it kind of turned into a vicious cycle that was pushing Lydia further and further away from other people.  Lydia really needed intervention from a third party to end the cycle. When Laura accepts Lydia and convinces the others to accept her as well, it opens up new sides of Lydia’s character and new possibilities for her.

The drive that some people have to assert control over others, enforce conformity within a group, and maintain an “us vs. them” mentality with non-conformists is responsible for many social problems and behavioral issues. Mrs. Witherspoon is an example of this, although it turns out that even our heroes are somewhat guilty in the way that they view Mrs. Witherspoon’s son Gordy at first.

This book taught me a new vocabulary word, purse-proud, which is used to describe Mrs. Witherspoon and her friends. Basically, it means pride in having money, especially if the person lacks other sources of pride. Mrs. Witherspoon and her friends are all wealthier members of the community, which is why they feel that they’re entitled to dictate to others what they should do and how things should be. They think that because they have more, they know best. (I’ve seen this before, but now I have a new word to describe it.) Initially, Mrs. Witherspoon is unconcerned with how local children are educated because she’s wealthy enough to send her son to private schools.  Other people’s needs are of no concern and possibly a source of inconvenience for her. Gordy is the one who changes her mind when he realizes that he has a chance at making real friends with the neighborhood kids if he goes to public school, like they do, and convinces his mother that it’s what he really wants.  Although his family is pretty privileged, Gordy never really made any friends at the private schools that he has attended and has actually been rather lonely. In a way, Gordy receives the final wish of the wishing well (for this book, anyway) in getting the new friends that he has needed and learning that there are other, more imaginative ways to have fun than what he’s been doing.

Gordy is a nice surprise as a character.  At first, he seems to be a kind of clueless trouble-maker, but his friendship with the other kids brings out better qualities in him.  Perhaps a better way to put it is that the others’ acceptance of him encourages him to show more of what he’s truly capable of.   When James and Laura are introduced to Gordy, he doesn’t seem very bright, and he does things he shouldn’t, like swimming in the reservoir instead of the river and throwing rocks at windows to break them just because he can.  In some ways, the other kids are right, that Gordy is thoughtless and doesn’t behave well. However, when they end up agreeing to hang out with Gordy one afternoon after failing to win over Mrs. Witherspoon with kindness, they realize that part of the reason that Gordy acts the way he does is that no one ever suggests to him that he do anything different.  Gordy lacks somewhat for positive influences in his life.  His mother thinks that she knows best in everything but isn’t always aware of what her son thinks and feels.  Other people try to avoid talking to Gordy because they see him as an annoyance or source of trouble, so no one explains to him how his behavior is keeping him from making friends.  However, Gordy does have good points.  Unlike Lydia, Gordy doesn’t seem to hold any grudges in spite of experiencing similar problems with fitting in and making friends.  Even when the other kids are less than enthusiastic about hanging out with him at first, he still keeps trying to be friendly and is quick to forgive their earlier coldness.  Gordy knows that he really wants friends and that part of the key to getting them is to remain open to the possibility of being friends, even when those friends aren’t perfect.  In the end, he is really good at showing the acceptance of others that is part of the theme of this story.  Acceptance of others and willingness to be friendly improves things for everyone.

Another thing that I really liked about this book is the children’s attitudes toward people’s conventional views of art and literature. Many people are eager to tell others what art or writing should be and how it should be done. Lydia said that people had criticized her drawings before for being “crazy” or not from real life. They couldn’t see the imagination and talent that it took to make them because they weren’t what people expected. Even Lydia’s grandmother complains about always having to paint scenes with maple trees in them because that’s what grows where they live. She’d rather paint something else, but people expect maples trees, so that’s what she paints. Kip says that he kind of understands because his teachers always tell him to “write what he knows”, but really, he thinks that the things he doesn’t know well are much more interesting. They all want the freedom to explore new ideas, and that type of exploration is what makes fantasy stories so interesting. There may be magic, and maybe not, but considering the possibilities is half the fun!

The Time Garden


The Time Garden by Edward Eager, 1958.

About a year after the events in the previous book in the series, Roger and Ann are excited when their father writes a play and announces that it will be performed in England. Unfortunately, their parents aren’t planning to take the children to England with them because the trip there will be just business, focusing on getting the play together. If the play is a success, they plan to send for the children so they can do some sightseeing in England, but until then, the children will need to stay somewhere else during summer vacation. Their mother, Martha, calls her sister Katharine to see if the children can come visit their cousins, but it turns out the Katharine is also looking for a place where Eliza and Jack can spend the summer. By coincidence, Katharine and her husband are also planning a business trip to Europe.

TimeGardenMrsWhitonThe adults talk it over and end up arranging for all four children to stay with Katharine’s husband’s great aunt, Mrs. Whiton, who lives in a house by the sea, not far from Boston. The children don’t find this prospect very exciting. Then the adults tell them that Mrs. Whiton writes children’s books, Eliza is sure that she’ll be trying to analyze them for inspiration for her stories, but Mrs. Whiton turns out to be better than they thought. She is unsentimental, something that Eliza appreciates, and her house is very nice. There is a pretty garden there, and a staircase that leads right down to the beach.

One day, when Mrs. Whiton sends them out to play in the garden, they find an old sundial that has a motto written on it: “Anything Can Happen When You’ve All the Time in the World!” The children have had experience with magic before, so they begin to suspect that this garden isn’t quite what it appears . . . and they’re right. A strange, toad-like creature call the Natterjack introduces himself to the children and tells them that the thyme garden, where there are many varieties of thyme growing, is also a time garden. He explains that he and his family have helped this garden grow since his grandfather’s grandfather was brought there from England along with a shipment of primroses and that they’ve put all of their magic into the garden and its plants. If the children would like to visit another time, all they have to do is to pluck a sprig of thyme and smell it.

TimeGardenWhitonHouseJack, who has decided that he’s too old for magic and is now only interested in girls, refuses to try it at first, denying the existence of magic, even in spite of the talking toad. The other children try it and find themselves at the same house during the time of the American Revolution. Everyone who sees them seems to think that they are the Whiton children of that time, and they end up participating in a ride very much like Paul Revere’s, riding through the countryside to alert people that the British are coming. At first, their ride is thrilling and successful, but if you know the other books in this series, you can guess that things are going to go wrong at some point.

When the kids reach a tavern, they try to tell the drunken men inside that the British will be at Lexington soon, and they say that they don’t care. As far as they’re concerned, if the British are going to Lexington, let the guys in Lexington deal with it. The children are offended that they don’t want to help and try to appeal to their patriotism and fellowship with other Americans. It turns out that they don’t have much patriotism (the United States isn’t a separate country yet, so there is that) or feelings of fellowship because their plan for if the British are defeated is basically “every man for himself.” (I understand this scene so much more now as an adult than I did when I read this as a kid. I think I’ve met their descendants.) The children are angered at this mercenary attitude, and Ann accuses them of being pro-British. One of them insists that they’re not because, “We ain’t pro-anything.” (Yep, this is familiar. Some people just want to be contrary until there’s something in it for them to gain.)

It gets worse when the anti-British talk causes the Natterjack, in a surge of British patriotism, to cry, “Rule, Britannia!” The drunks in the tavern then decide that the kids were trying to deceive them about the British coming because they’re actually on the side of the British, trying to distract them from the British army’s real plans. When they discover that the voice actually came from a talking toad, they declare that it’s witchcraft and decide to throw the children into the pond to see if they will float (an old test in witchcraft trials).

In a bizarre twist, they are saved by a band of attacking American Indians. (Native Americans ex Machina?) There’s no real reason for a tribe of American Indians to be attacking at this particular moment, and the kids in the story seem to realize that.  This incident, like many others in this series, is partly based on other books in classic children’s literature, especially the works of E. Nesbit, the author’s favorite children’s author.  A similar incident occurs to the children in E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, although under different circumstances.  The author of this story frequently pokes fun at tropes of classic children’s literature in his books and makes pop culture references from the 1950s, so the more old books you’re familiar with, the more you see the jokes, although I admit that, even knowing the background, this scene still bothers me. In the grand tradition of cheesy 1950s westerns, there’s a vague description of the carnage of the attack with the requisite scalping and tomahawking (yes, they use it as verb). Ann is upset about the attack and covers her eyes, although Roger says that he doesn’t think that this attack could really have occurred in real life because they would have heard about it if it were a real, historical event. Ann worries that they somehow caused it by messing with history. When the tribe is done tomahawking their attackers, the children are worried that they’ll be next, but the Natterjack tells the children that they can escape by smelling the thyme again.

Before we move on, I should point out here that, in different books in this series, it’s never entirely clear how much of the children’s adventures occur in the real world or in some kind of magical, alternate reality or maybe in their own minds, and this is actually intentional. The idea of sniffing a magical herb and being transported through time sounds kind of trippy. The whole “savage painted Indians” (their words, not mine) trope was a staple of old western shows, the kind that kids growing in the 1950s might have watched because that genre was popular, particularly in the late 1950s, when the book was published, so the children’s experiences may be partly patterned after what a 1950s kid might have imagined after watching those shows. (Sort of like the Arabian fantasies that their mothers had in previous books in the series, probably inspired by The Sheik.) So, this incident in the book is partly a take-off on similar ones in other children’s books, but it might also be the author’s commentary on the types of shows that were popular and children’s expectations.  Perhaps some of the implication is that the children’s expectations, based on things they’ve read or seen on tv are what caused this weird, otherwise inexplicable attack in the first place. (It’s like on tv, kiddos, and now you can see it in full color!  You expected it, so you got it.  Still think this stuff is fun?) Part of the problem with this scene for me is that it’s difficult to tell exactly how the author means it. I can guess a little, given the author’s taste for making literary references and parodying tropes of children’s stories, but even as a parody, it’s uncomfortable by modern standards and still makes very little sense why it’s even happening at all. This scene is just plain needless and cringe-worthy in my opinion, but you sometimes run into things like that with older children’s books.  It’s some consolation that this is the worst scene in the entire book, so it’s good to get it out of the way early.

Before we return to the main plot again, I’d also like to say that the children themselves don’t seem to understand exactly how the magic works (like other children in this series) or whether what happened to them was completely real or not.  They debate about it periodically and wonder about the children that they replaced on this adventure (and on later ones as well). They never quite know if those children went somewhere else while they took their place or if both sets of children were just living out the same adventure at the same time, just seeing it in slightly different ways.  These time travel questions are fun to ponder, but are never really explained, just theorized.

When the children get back to their own time from the Revolutionary War period, the Natterjack apologizes for getting them into trouble and asks them to put the plant sprig back in the ground, where it grows again (no “wasting thyme”, ha, ha). He also further explains that the name of the particular variety of thyme they pick in the garden is important because it has some bearing on where in time they will go. The thyme they had chosen was “wild thyme”, and they had to admit that their time was pretty wild. Ann borrows a gardening catalog from Mrs. Whiton’s old gardener and begins studying the different varieties of thyme. When they ask the Natterjack about the massacre at the tavern, he tells them that the mistakes they make or bad consequences of their interference will be erased by the good deeds they do, so their timely warnings about the British coming will have an effect, but that massacre has been erased from history. (Too bad it’s still in the book.  There’s still no real reason for it to be there, dang western trope.) Good deeds performed during their adventures will earn them more adventures, so they have to remember to do some good in every time they visit.

So, while Jack spends most of his time getting to know the local teenage girls and doing normal teenage things and trying to ignore his sister and cousins when they talk about magic, the others get to spend their summer having magical time adventures. The next variety of thyme they pick is “splendid thyme.” Once again, they are taken back in the history of the house, where they are again mistaken for past Whiton children. The time period is around the Civil War, and the house is being used as a station on the Underground Railroad. The children help some escaping slaves to flee to Canada. (Their sentiments are strongly anti-slavery, which is a relief after that massacre scene. The escaping slaves aren’t portrayed too badly, although mostly, they’re in hiding during the adventure and are oddly unquestioning of how the kids managed to use magic to get them to Canada so fast, just embarrassingly grateful for it.)

TimeGardenCrossOverAfter that, Eliza wants to know if they’re restricted to historical adventures only or if they can visit times that are fictional as well, referencing their adventures with Ivanhoe in the previous book. It turns out that the time garden is very accommodating, and they are able to go back in fictional time to visit the characters in Little Women (which, fortunately, took place not far from where they are staying), especially since Louisa May Alcott based the characters on herself and her sisters, giving the book a sense of semi-reality. Jack, who has been denying the magic all along, comes with them on this adventure, and spends all of his time fawning over the teenage Meg and Jo. The children help to reform an ungrateful family that has been taking advantage of the girls’ generosity (and, as Jo says, reforming “is punishment enough”).

Sharing in this adventure with the other children is enough to get Jack to admit that they’re having adventures, although he still refuses to look at it as being magic, preferring more scientific terms. At one point, he describes a theory of time as looking down on the world from an airplane. From high above, you can see many different places at once, but it would take a person on the ground a long time to get from one place to another. Similarly, Jack thinks that everything in history is happening all at once, but it just takes people a long time to get from one event to another because of their vantage point.

TimeGardenElizaLondonThen, the children get the idea to go visit their mothers in England. However, when they use Common Thyme with their wish, they end up seeing their mothers in the past, not the present. This is the point in the story where it crosses over with their mothers’ magical adventures as children in Magic By the Lake.

Eliza then gets the idea of using thyme seeds to travel through time instead of using a full-grown plant. She and Jack end up traveling to England. However, they end up in the wrong period of history, and because the magical rules are broken, everyone sees them as the modern children they really are and not as people from the appropriate time period. When Eliza manages to offend Queen Elizabeth I and ends up in the Tower of London, they need the help of Ann, Roger, and the Natterjack to straighten things out!

I think my favorite part of the story is really the thyme/time garden itself. Not only is it a fun pun, but I thought that it was clever how the titles of particular varieties of thyme relate to the times and places where the children end up. Different varieties of thyme plants really do have some incredible names in real life. At the end of the book, after the children go to England to join their parents because the play was successful, the Natterjack waits in the garden for the next set of children who will go on adventures, and after looking up other varieties of thyme that the book never mentioned, the possibilities for new adventures are tantalizing: Leprechaun Thyme (for adventures with leprechauns), Elfin Thyme (either for adventures with elves or maybe becoming smaller?), and Woolly Thyme (Want to go see a woolly mammoth? On the other hand, maybe it just goes to a sheep farm. This magic stuff never works like you think it will).

Knight’s Castle

Knight's Castle

Knight’s Castle by Edward Eager, 1956.

Roger and Ann are the children of Martha from the previous two books in the series. Like their mother’s family when they were growing up, they live in Toledo, Ohio. Their Aunt Katharine (one of Martha’s older sisters) used to live close to them in the Midwest but now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Roger and Ann don’t particularly get along with Aunt Katharine’s children, Eliza and Jack, because Eliza is bossy and Jack is only interested in photography. However, the four children end up spending the summer together when Roger and Ann’s father needs to have an operation at a hospital in Baltimore.

Like their mother and her siblings when they were young, Roger and Ann also like fantasy stories, which their father likes to read to them. Roger starts to believe in real magic when it seems like one of his toy soldiers comes to life at night. Roger collects toy soldiers, and he has over 200 of them, but this one is special because his father says that its been handed down in their family for generations. Roger calls it the Old One. It’s rather worn, so it isn’t obvious at first, but the Old One is actually a knight. Worried about his father’s illness, Roger takes the Old One to bed with him (which he thinks is more manly than taking a teddy bear to bed), and then feels it wriggling in his hand.

Knight's Castle RogerRealizing that the Old One is magic and is coming to life when he holds him, Roger asks him if it’s part of his magic to grant wishes. If it is, then he wishes for his father to get well, and if possible, for him and his sister to have an adventure in Baltimore over the summer. The Old One doesn’t answer him immediately, but over time, he makes it clear to Roger that wishes have to be earned, and that will be the source of his summer adventure.

When the children arrive in Baltimore to stay with wealthy Aunt Katharine while their father is in the hospital, Aunt Katharine gives them presents. Ann gets a new dollhouse, and there is a toy castle for Roger. Since Aunt Katharine has also just taken all the children to the movies to see Ivanhoe, all of them become immediately interested in playing with the castle.

That night, Roger has a strange dream that he finds himself within the story of Ivanhoe, which is being acted out in his toy castle. The Old One is there as well, although he is mainly watching the action as Roger begins to take part in the story. When Roger comes face-to-face with the villain, he accidentally lets Ivanhoe’s plans slip to him. Things are looking pretty bleak when Roger suddenly realizes that the castle is still a toy and everyone around him is just a lead soldier. This revelation ends the magical adventure and brings him back to reality. However, Roger is disappointed that he ended the adventure so early when perhaps he could have done something really heroic.

Seeing the toy soldiers scattered around instead of poised for the battle they were planning the night before, Eliza and Ann think that Roger was just playing with the castle without them, but he explains to them what happened. The girls were just reading The Magic City by E. Nesbit, and they start building their own “magic city” out of random things from around the house, surrounding the toy castle. Roger is upset about the city because he says that it doesn’t fit in with the Ivanhoe story, and he’s sure that it will ruin everything, maybe from preventing the magic from working again at all. The Old One tells Roger that magic works by threes, so the next opportunity for magic will be in three days.

Knight's Castle Magic City

As it turns out, the city does end up becoming part of the story when the magic brings it all to life on the third night. Roger, Ann, and Eliza find themselves in the middle of the city, surrounded by knights attempting to drive modern cars. Ivanhoe has become a fan of science fiction books, via the public library in the city that the girls built. Although Ivanhoe has turned into something of a geek, the children persuade him to come on a mission to rescue the captive Rebecca, and they end up traveling in a flying saucer (made from a real saucer) to the Dolorous Tower, where the adventure ends as soon as Eliza remembers that the villain threatening them is still just a lead soldier.

Knight's Castle Flying SaucerIt was an even weirder adventure than Roger’s first one, but by now, the children are starting to understand the rules that go along with the magic. Jack, who says he doesn’t really believe in magic, accompanies the other children on the next adventure, as they try to prove to him that it’s real. They end up having to rescue some of the others from the “giant’s lair”, which turns out to be Ann’s new dollhouse. The dolls are angry that Ann has been neglecting them, only paying attention to the dollhouse when she and Eliza needed to borrow things for their magic city. They manage to escape again by remembering that the dolls are just dolls.

However, Roger is still worried about their father, who is about to undergo his operation. The Old One had told him that wishes needed to be earned, and he doesn’t think that they’ve managed to accomplish much in their adventures. Roger thinks that they need to do something really heroic so that his wish for his father to get better will come true. The Old One gives Roger a rhyme, hinting at what the children need to do on their next adventure, but Roger doesn’t understand what it means, and he doesn’t know if he can figure it out in time.

Actually, it is Ann who eventually realizes what the rhyme means and provides Roger with the “wisdom” that he needs to earn his wish. All throughout the story, Roger was criticizing his little sister for things she did wrong, saying that she was too little and only a girl. Because Roger thinks of her as being just his little sister, he overlooks what she has to contribute to the adventure. Roger’s acquired wisdom is to value the contributions of others and not underestimate their ability to contribute. Ann, being young and shy, frequently doubts herself, but she also learns confidence when she realizes that she has the answer to the riddle. Jack and Eliza learn lessons as well. Doubting Jack learns to believe in magic, and Eliza learns that she can’t always be the boss, that sometimes it is better to let someone else take the lead when they’re the right person for the job. (Although, she does say at the end of story, “If that wouldn’t be just like that magic’s impudence! Trying to teach me moral lessons!”)

Like other books in this series, there are a lot of references to popular pieces of children’s literature and jokes about things that happen in children’s stories.

Knight's Castle Feast

Magic by the Lake


Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager, 1957.

Jane, Mark, Katharine, and Martha are finally going to spend the summer at a lake with their mother and their new stepfather! The children were never able to do that before because their widowed mother always had to work during the summer. When they arrive at the cottage by the lake that their stepfather, Mr. Smith, has rented, there is a sign that says, “Magic by the Lake.” The children think that it could just be the name of the cottage because sometimes cottages are giving interesting or amusing names, but having had experience with magic before (this being the second book in the series), they consider the idea that they could be headed for more adventures. Of course, they are correct, but it turns out to be the lake that’s really magical, not the cottage.

MagicByLakeTurtleThe children are playing by the lake when they wish for more magic, and a talking turtle comes up to tell them that, because of their wish, the entire lake is magic. That sounds amazing, but too much magic all at once can be overwhelming. Fortunately, the turtle is also magical, and he has some ability to influence magic in the lake. The children make a deal with him that he can arrange for them to have adventures with magic in the lake, but only one at a time, because that’s what they feel that they can handle. Also, the adventures won’t happen every day, so they can have a chance to rest in between. The grown-ups around them won’t notice any of the magical happenings, and little Martha insists that nothing truly scary will happen to them. Jane protests at that request because she thinks that it will make their adventures as boring as overly-tame children’s books, but the turtle says not to worry because what he thinks of as “not scary” isn’t necessarily what Martha would think of as “not scary.” The turtle tells the children that when they’re ready for adventure, they should think about what they wish for and then touch the lake, and if the time is right for it to happen, it will.

That sounds simple enough, but what they consider the right time and what the lake considers the right time aren’t always the same thing, and just as before, their wishes and adventures don’t go quite as planned. In their first adventure, a mermaid takes them to an island of pirates, the stuff of high adventure. The children are delighted when they discover that the pirates, being adults, can’t really see them, as per their earlier wish for adults not to see their magical activities. It opens the potential for playing dirty tricks on rotten pirates, who seem to perceive them as some sort of ghosts. It’s all fun and games until the pirate captain decides to see if he can make ghosts walk the plank. Their turtle friend saves them by turning them into turtles, which, while magical, makes the rest of the day rather difficult for them because they have to go home and on errands with their mother. Walking on land can be difficult for turtles, and their mother has no idea that they’ve changed at all, still seeing them as children. Whatever magic the children get during the day seems to last until the sun sets, even when they wish it would end sooner.

MagicByLakeGrownUpThen, while watching their mother and Mr. Smith at a dance, Jane and Katharine wish that they were old enough to join in, about age sixteen. Suddenly, the two of them are teenagers in evening dresses, getting attention from some teenage boys. The girls seem to enjoy the romance of it, but Mark and Martha follow them around, trying to convince the boys that the girls are really younger than they seem to be and dreading the moment when they will inevitably change back to themselves.

The children discover that they don’t even need to be at the lake in order to make the magic happen as long as they’re touching water from the lake. On a rainy date, when the roof of their cottage is leaking, the children realize that the rain water is also lake water. By making a wish on that, they end up at the South Pole in time to save a lost explorer and help him make an important discovery.

MagicByLakeDisappearanceThe children enjoy their adventures, but they become worried about Mr. Smith, who has been making the commute back and forth from the lake to his bookshop, and it seems that business hasn’t been good at his bookshop this summer. They consider the idea of using the magic of the lake to solve Mr. Smith’s problems, perhaps by going back to the island where they saw the pirates bury a treasure chest. They figure that if they could bring Mr. Smith an entire chest of pirate treasure, he wouldn’t have to worry about money anymore.

But, of course, that idea doesn’t go as planned. When Martha argues with the others and goes to the island by herself to get the treasure, she breaks all the rules associated with the magic.   Because the rules that previous protected her and her siblings are gone, there is nothing to prevent her from being captured by the cannibals that live on the island. When her brother and sisters try to save her, they are also captured. It’s only the sudden appearance of Martha’s future children and Katharine’s future daughter (although they don’t know it yet), who are on a magical adventure of their own, in a cross-over from another book in the series, The Time Garden.

MagicByLakeTreasureThe children make one more attempt to get treasure for Mr. Smith in a kind of Arabian Knights adventure, but that doesn’t work, either. However, although the children seem to have used up their wishes on the lake, they have the feeling that the magic might allow them one last opportunity to get what Mr. Smith needs. It does in a way that may or might not be magical, although the buried treasure that they find and get Mr. Smith to dig up may be a representation of the pirates’ treasure and not of the old miser (now deceased) who was said to have lived at the old, abandoned cottage by the lake that the children decide to explore. It does seem like quite a coincidence that the old miser’s initials would match those of the pirate captain, and they are carved on the stone over the buried treasure, just like the marker the pirate captain left.

In the scene with the cannibals on the island, the cannibals are stereotypical “savage natives” (or “native savages”, or something generic of that sort, since the terms are used pretty interchangeably in the story). You find things like this pretty commonly in old children’s books, especially prior to the 1960s. But, what made this more palatable for me was that the entire scene is written as a joke on the usual stereotypical books that children of the era would have read. The cannibals speak kind of like American Indians in cheesy old Westerns, using words like “heap” for “very” and randomly adding “-um” to end of words. You know that it’s not really how anybody, even cannibals living on some remote island in an indeterminate ocean, would talk, but it might be how children raised on adventure stories and movies from the 1920s might imagine they would (adding to my earlier theory from the last book that at least some of the children’s adventures might actually take place in their own minds, not in their “real world”).  It may also be a reference to things in tv shows from the 1950s, the time period when the story was written. The best part for me is when the children try to remember what shipwrecked explorers do when confronted with cannibals in some of the stories they’ve read. They start throwing out random words that are meant to sound impressive combined with some gobbledy-gook in an effort to communicate/impress the cannibals. Then, Mark tries to convince them that he’s a powerful god with the ability to control fire. The cannibal chief is unimpressed, telling him that he recognizes what Mark has as an ordinary safety match, which he blows out. So much for the old adventure stories.

Half Magic

HalfMagicHalf Magic by Edward Eager, 1954, 1982.

Jane, Mark, Katharine, and Martha are siblings living in the 1920s. Their father is dead, and their mother works for a newspaper. While their mother is at work, Miss Bick takes care of the house and the children, although she isn’t really good with children. The children are often free to amuse themselves on their own during the summer, and they like to pick out books from the library for entertainment. They particularly enjoy the fantasy books by E. Nesbit (a real author, and they reference her real books during the story), and they wish that exciting, magical things like the ones that happen in her stories would happen to them.

They get their wish (and a great many others) when Jane finds a strange coin on the sidewalk that they mistake for a nickel at first. By accident, they discover that this coin grants wishes, but it has a peculiar habit of only granting half of what a person wishes for (and the coin seems to interpret the idea of “half” pretty liberally, depending on the type of wish, so results can be pretty unpredictable).

Jane is so bored after she finds the coin that she wishes that there would be a fire for some excitement. Suddenly, the children hear a fire engine and discover that a child’s playhouse had caught fire. It could have been coincidence, except that their mother borrows some change from Jane, getting the magical coin by accident. While she is visiting the children’s aunt and uncle and finds their conversation boring, she wishes that she were at home, but finds herself unexpectedly by the side of the road halfway home. She is confused but thinks that she must just be very tired or something and forgot that she was walking home. She ends up accepting a ride from a very nice man who happened to be passing her on the road and thought that she looked lost and confused.

HalfMagicChildrenThese early experiences and a series of odd wishes Mark makes when he doesn’t realize that he has the coin demonstrate to the children not only that the coin is magical but that they have to be extremely careful what they wish for when they have it. They have to word their requests very carefully, asking for twice as much of anything they want in order to counteract the half magic of the coin. Even so, they can’t help but make mistakes and get themselves into trouble.

When Katharine uses her turn with the coin to take them back to the days of King Arthur, she ends up causing trouble and disrupting history by defeating Lancelot in a tournament. Fortunately, Merlin realizes what the children have done and forces them to explain themselves and show him the magic coin. After inspecting it, Merlin gives the children a stern lecture about interfering with the natural course of history. He uses the coin’s magic to undo what the children have done and further uses it to restrict the children’s wishes to affecting only their own time period. He warns them to be more careful about what they wish for, keeping their wishes smaller and more personal, adding that the coin’s magic will eventually be exhausted, so they should save their wishes for what is important.

HalfMagicTheaterThere is one more disastrous experience when the children go to the movies (a silent film because this is 1920s), and Martha accidentally wishes that she wasn’t there while touching Jane’s purse, which holds the coin. Martha, of course, ends up being only halfway “not there,” almost like a living ghost, which terrifies onlookers. Straightening out that mess brings them into contact with Mr. Smith, the nice man who gave their mother a ride home. He owns a bookstore, and he enjoys fantasy stories as much as the children do. He becomes the only adult who knows that the children have been using magic, and he’s fascinated by it, enjoying witnessing their adventures.

When the children’s mother comes to pick them up, Mr. Smith is pleased to meet her again and invites the family to join him for dinner. Mr. Smith is obviously fond of the children’s mother, and most of the children like him, too. However, Jane is uneasy. It’s partly that she worries that Mr. Smith will interfere with their use of the magic coin and partly that she worries about his new relationship with their mother. Of the four children, only Jane, as the oldest, really remembers their father, and she can’t stand the thought that Mr. Smith might become their stepfather and take his place.

HalfMagicSmithWhen Jane argues with the other children about Mr. Smith and rashly wishes that she belonged to another family, the other children call upon Mr. Smith to help them rescue Jane from her foolish wish, her unsuitable new family, and from herself.

In the end, Mr. Smith does marry the children’s mother, and even Jane is happy with the arrangement, having come to appreciate Mr. Smith much better.  Once their mother and Mr. Smith each have what they wished for most — each other and a happy family with the children — they forget about the magic coin.  Although none of the children realize it, the coin also grants Jane one final half-wish in which her father comes to her in a dream-like form, letting her know that he approves of her mother’s remarriage and the children’s new stepfather because he wants them all to be happy.  This gives Jane the reassurance she needs to fully accept Mr. Smith.  The children, deciding that the coin has given them all the wishes it’s going to, leave it in a convenient place for a new owner to find.

You don’t find out what happens with the coin’s new owner apart from when the children see a young girl pick it up and realize that it’s magic when she makes her first wish. However, there is a cross-over scene in another book in the series, Seven-Day Magic, which explains a little more about what happens next.  Books in this series frequently reference and sometimes parody other children’s books that were popular at the time they written, and individual books in the series even sometimes reference each other, even when the main characters have changed.

Speaking of literary references and parodies in this series, sometimes it’s a little difficult to tell for certain which scenes are really meant as parodies and which aren’t.  Knowing a bit about vintage children’s fiction helps, but there may be some scenes in the stories which can make modern readers a little uneasy.  One scene in the book that bothered me was near the beginning, when Mark wishes to be on a desert island.  This was before the children fully realize that the coin only grants half of a wish, so the children just end up in a desert, but not on an island.  The part that bothers me is that they are briefly kidnapped by a kind of wandering Arab man who seems to be planning to ransom or sell them.  This scene is like an old stereotype out of the sort of silent movies that the children would have been watching, and because of that, it was a little painful to read.  The man’s name is Achmed (still in keeping with the stereotype), and they keep referring to him as “Achmed the Arab,” in case you need reminding that that’s what he is.  They get out of their predicament with him by wishing for something that would make him really happy so that he’ll forget about them.  By then, they realize that they need to double their request in order to make the coin work properly, so their wish works.  The coin ends up giving Achmed a beautiful wife and “six plump Arab children” (in case you forgot that Achmed’s children would be Arab as well) and generally improves what Achmed owns, so Achmed becomes a happy family man and gives up his earlier, shady ways.  It’s eye-rollingly stereotypical and cliche, so I think it’s worth telling potential readers that this scene is there.

The cliches and stereotypes (not to mention the constant, unnecessary repetition of the word “Arab” just to remind you that that’s what everyone is, in case you were confused) in that scene were annoying, but unfortunately, things like that crop up pretty regularly in children’s literature from the 1950s and earlier when there are scenes that take place just about anywhere outside of the United States, Canada, or Europe.  That being said, there are a couple of things that make this scene easier to bear.  One is that Mark, realizing that the magic coin can get them out of this situation and that they have the power to put Achmed at their mercy, decides not to do it because it occurs to him that Achmed is probably a desperate man because he is poor.  Mark decides that Achmed would be a better person if he had whatever would make him feel the most fulfilled in life, so he wishes for that for him.  It’s nice that Mark sees him as being a person whose well-being needs to be considered, not just an enemy to be defeated.  Also, it occurs to me that it’s not completely certain that the desert they’re in is a real-life one, even in the children’s fictional world.  I think the assumption is that it is, like we’re supposed to assume that the world of Camelot that they visit is a real part of history, but it may not be.  In fact, the children in different books in this series in general sometimes get philosophical about their magical adventures, wondering about how their magical adventures fit into the real world around them or if they really do, and they never fully get all the answers.   Perhaps the coin took the children to their idea of what a desert or what Camelot would be like, not to those real places.  In 1921, there was a famous silent movie called The Sheik in which Rudolph Valentino played an Arab sheik named Ahmed (Achmed’s name could be a joke on that).  It’s not a movie for children, but it was very popular in the 1920s, and it inspired other movies with Arabian themes, at least a couple of songs, and probably a number of the stereotypes about Arabs of the time.  So, if the kids in the story were imagining an Arabian desert, it would probably be something resembling what they’d seen in movies like that.  This little adventure may have only taken place in the imaginary world, even from the children’s perspective, and the author may be poking fun at the notions children get from popular culture.  Even in the end, the children admit that there are many things they don’t understand about the coin and how it works, like where the other half of Martha went when she was only half there.   In a world where magic works, pretty much anything is possible.  Then again, since the entire book is fictional, it may be best not to worry too much about it.  Still, I just plain didn’t like this scene.  The rest of the book wasn’t so bad.

Overall, it’s a fun story.  Part of the fun for book lovers is in spotting the various literary references in the story because the children talk about the books they like and read and compare their adventures to ones they’ve read about.  The concept of the half-wishes also makes you think.  It’s worth pointing out that, although the children enjoy the general adventure of the coin, most of the children’s wishes, no matter how carefully they word them, don’t turn out the way that they expected, even when they get exactly what they asked for.  Mr. Smith marrying their mother is actually the best wish that comes true in the whole book.


The Stinky Cheese Man


The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, 1992.

StinkyCheeseManDuckThis book is meant as a spoof on a number of classic fairy tales. As it explains in the introduction, the short stories included in the book are more Fairly Stupid Tales than Fairy Tales, giving the example of Goldilocks and the Three Elephants: A girl smells peanut porridge and wants to enter the elephants’ house to eat some and try out their furniture, but elephant furniture is too big for her to climb up on, so she just leaves, The End. That incredibly short story isn’t found anywhere else in the book, but it’s a good example of what the other stories are like.

Even the set up of the book is a joke, with the Little Red Hen showing up to demand help with her wheat only for Jack the Narrator to tell her that it’s too soon because they haven’t even had the title page yet. The title page has the words “Title Page” larger than the title itself, and the dedication is upside down because who would actually read it anyway? Then, Chicken Licken thinks that the sky is falling and that everyone should run and tell the President, but it turns out that what’s falling is actually the Table of Contents, which squashes everyone before Foxy Loxy can eat them.

Then, the rest of the stories begin:

StinkyCheeseManMattressesChicken Licken – As described above

The Princess and the Bowling Ball – parody of the Princess and the Pea – Starts off like the original story with the prince’s parents testing princesses to see if they can feel a pea through a whole bunch of mattresses, but none of them ever do, so the prince takes matters into his own hands to rig the test in favor of the girl he really wants to marry.

The Really Ugly Duckling – parody of The Ugly Duckling – When the really ugly duckling grows up, he’s basically just an ugly duck. The End.

The Other Frog Prince – parody of The Frog Prince – The frog isn’t really a prince. He just said that because he wanted a kiss.

Little Red Running Shorts – parody of Little Red Riding Hood – Jack the Narrator accidentally spoils the story by revealing too much in his introduction to it, so the characters feel like there’s no need to act it out, and the Little Red Hen fills up the extra space, demanding to know why they haven’t gotten to her story yet.

Jack’s Bean Problem – parody of Jack and the Beanstalk – Jack the Narrator starts to tell his own story about defeating the Giant, but the Giant protests because he doesn’t like always being tricked and takes control and reads a story that he “wrote” himself, cut out of pieces of other random stories from different books. When the Giant threatens to eat Jack if he can’t tell a better story, Jack tells a story that constantly repeats until it transitions into the next one.

Cinderumpelstiltskin – parody of Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin – Starts out like the usual Cinderella story, but Rumpelstiltskin shows up and offers to teach her how to spin straw into gold. Cinderella doesn’t see how that can possibly help her since he doesn’t have a gown for her to wear to the ball, so she ends up without either a gown or any gold.

The Tortoise and the Hair – parody of The Tortoise and the Hare – A rabbit tells the tortoise that he’s so slow that he can grow hair faster than the tortoise can run. By the end of the story, the tortoise is still running, and the rabbit is still growing hair.

The Stinky Cheese Man – parody of The Gingerbread Man – An old couple make a “child” for themselves out of stinky cheese. When he takes on a life of his own and run away, they don’t bother to chase him because they can’t stand the smell. Nobody else wants to chase him, either.

StinkyCheeseManCinderSo, why isn’t there a Little Red Hen story listed? At the end of the book, she shows up to complain about how she had to do everything herself to make the bread and nobody even saved space for her story (because Jack had to sneak away from the Giant after he fell asleep). The Giant wakes up and decides to make a chicken sandwich with the bread.

Understanding the jokes in the book requires a knowledge of the stories they’re spoofing, so this isn’t a book for very young children. Any kid who reads this should already know the classic fairy tales and be old enough to appreciate the humorous twists. Some of the humor has to do with the abrupt endings, simplifying issues that are more drawn-out in the original stories.

The art style is very distinctive, with a number of cutout elements with different textures. It’s not a style that I particularly like, but I appreciate the way that the pictures were put together, and it’s kind of fascinating to see.