Of course I noticed Annie Barrows's book The Magic Half the minute the paperback hit the shelves almost a year ago. The cover art is by one of my favorites, Alexandra Boiger, who illustrated two books that made it to my Best Picture Books of 2008, The Little Bit Scary People by Emily Jenkins and While Mama Had a Quick Little Chat by Amy Reichert. Boiger has also recently updated the cover art for Betty MacDonald's superb Mrs Piggle-Wiggle series, taking over for the briliant and influential children's book illustrator Hilary Knight. On top of the great cover, Barrows name caught my attention as well. Not only is she the author of the super new chapter book series for emerging readers, Ivy + Bean, but, along with her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, she is the co-author of the bestselling book group favorite for adults, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society!
And, yes, all that great background experience does lead up to a really great book! Like Jeanne Birdsall's wonderful series The Penderwicks (no news yet on when book 3 in the series will be published, but she plans to write 5 in all), The Magic Half shares a sense of timelessness (even though there are brief references here and there to Xboxes, iPods and cell phones) and attention to the importance of family. And, these books also share the common theme of big families. Four sisters make up the Penderwick family. The main character of The Magic Half, Miri (short for Miriam) is the middle child between two sets of twins. As Miri's father notes, "only one in fifty thousand families had two pairs of twins," thus making their family unique. For eleven year old Miri, this mostly means being the odd person out. Older brothers Robbie and Ray are inseparable, as are four year old twins, Nora and Nell. When the family moves to a new (old) house out in the country, Miri gets her own room for the first time, but still has trouble settling in.
The action in the story begins when Robbie and Ray run home with the news that there might be stolen loot buried on their property. Miri, who is getting a break from baby-sitting Nora and Nell, wants to help but the boys won't let her. Wandering around the large piece of land the house is set on leads her to the remains of the old barn and the likely spot for hidden treasure. When the boys spot her trying to sneak off with a shovel, a chase ensues, Miri is tackled, breaking her glasses, and she ends up whacking Ray in the head with the shovel. This lands Miri back in her room awaiting further punishment. Squinting without her glasses, Miri notices a flash of light near the floor from across the room. When she investigates, she finds a piece of glass - the lens from a pair of eyeglasses - taped to the baseboard. She gently removes it and holds it up to her eye for a better look and finds herself in the same place but transported to a different time. I find myself wanting to add exclamation points at the end of every sentence I write about this book. Barrows writing is so descriptively vivid, so immediate and straightforward, that the twists and turns, and magic, when it arrives, are always a surprise.
Miri finds herself face to face with Molly in the year 1935. Glasses, broken or otherwise, play a key role in this story, which quickly turns into a fast paced adventure and a race against the clock. Thoughtful and open to the possibilities of the imagination, Miri is only a little bit surprised by her time travel. Lonely and feeling left out, she immediately sees the same in Molly and her less than ideal family life and knows that, if she does nothing else, she must return to her own time with Molly in tow. This seems easy enough, but Miri first has to figure out how the magic and time travel work and how she can maneuver around Molly's menacing cousin Horst and manipulative Aunt Flo. And then there is Molly's Grandma May. I tore through this book because the story was so engrossing but also because Horst was such an unpredictable, wicked character that I was really worried for Molly's safety and had to know how the plot worked out. Barrows's writing style also lends itself to a speedy read. The book itself is a smaller format and the chapters are often less than ten pages. Which is both good and bad. Being such a great story, I would have loved to spend more time with Molly in 1935 and maybe even learn more about the mysterious Grandma May. Barrows's descriptions of the house are wonderful and Flo, Horst and his sister, Sissy are easily imagined and well drawn. Time with Miri and her siblings in the present is also enjoyable. The way her mother manages five children while unpacking a house and preparing to for a new semester teaching college while their father is out of town at a conference was entertaining from an adult's perspective, especially.
Short or long, I hope to read more of the same from Annie Burrows in the future!
Readers who enjoyed this book (and have already read The Penderwicks) might also like:
Half Magic by Edward Eager. All his books are excellent and this is a great place to start.
Five Children and It by E. Nesbit. Writing at the turn of the last century, Nesbit's fantasy stories have been greatly influential in the world of children's literature, inspiring Edward Eager and CS Lewis, among many others. Many of Nesbit's books have been made (and re-made) into movies by the BBC. One of my favorite is The Railway Children. Reality based, this book is comparable to A Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodeson Burnett and a wonderful story about children and adults overcoming hardship with the help of friends. Interestingly, this book has been made into a movie five times in between 1968 and 2000. The British actress Jenny Agutter played the daughter in the 1968 production and the mother in the 2000 one.
Strawberry Hill, by current Children's Poet Laureate Mary Ann Hoberman is an excellent slice of life in America during the Great Depression. While it is semi-autobiographical and thus reality based, Hoberman's writing is so precise and rich that it feels magical.
And, last but not least, The Secret of the Ruby Ring by Yvonne Mac Gory, pictures by Terry Myler, is one of the best time-travel, historical fiction books for young readers I have enjoyed. Sadly, it is out of print but used copies abound. Lucy is a rather spoiled eleven year old who gets a very special ring as a birthday gift from her Grandmother. When she puts it on and twists it she finds herself in 1885 Ireland during a time of unrest, evictions and boycotting, working as a maid in Langley Castle. When she loses the ring and is unsure she will ever see her family again, she begins to take charge of her situation and appreciate her life.
Just in case you weren't familiar with Ivy + Bean, here they are, pictures by another favorite of mine in the world of children's book illustrators, Sophie Blackall.