Waiting for the Magic, written by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Amy June Bates, 143 pp, RL 2

Waiting for the Magic is now in paperback!

 I have to confess that, despite the fact I have been dedicated over the last three years to searching out well written, thoughtful and entertaining books written at the second and third grade reading levels, I continue experience a sense of apprehension each time I begin to read one, even if it is by Newbery Award winning author Patricia MacLachlan with illustrations by the charming and wonderful Amy June Bates.  Even more so when I learn that the book involves a difficult, sad event in a child's life. But, like Julie Sternberg's Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, I have fallen in love with Waiting for the Magic and am in awe of the ability of these authors to take an emotional situation, pare it down to fit into a small space then fill it up with details and moments that make for a vivid, memorable book.

Waiting for the Magic begins, "It was early on a Saturday summer morning when my mother and father stopped arguing and Papa walked away." That made me a bit nervous. A parent leaving is a pretty intense experience, but, the narrator Will has just finished fourth grade and is beginning to understand the some of the glimpses he has into the world of adults and, MacLachlan, like the thoughtful, protective parents in the book, lets the reader know that emotions are high but holds back from revealing the full force of them. When his mother breaks down narrator Will says, "Mama's crying scared me. All I could do was hate Papa for this. For causing Mama to cry right in front of me." MacLachlan uses straightforward language that fits her characters, especially Elinor, Will's four year old sister. Imaginative and a pro at pretend play, Elinor is not overly cute or sweet or knowing, as four-year-old characters sometimes are. She has a list of bad words (which she pronounces "woods") that includes "fat," "stupid" and "idiot." While these are words that Mama thinks it is cruel to call anyone, Elinor has learned them while strapped into her car seat, nonetheless.

When Papa, who is a college professor, leaves home to write, Mama does her best to keep her opinions and emotions to herself. Her biggest expression of emotion comes when she drives Will and Elinor to the animal shelter to get a dog, something Papa never understood the value of. There are four very different dogs a the shelter that day and the family returns home with all of them, including, at the request of Elinor, a cat. As the owner of two very loved dogs, I can tell you that MacLachlan does a fabulous job creating her dog personalities and illustrating the ways in which their presence can contribute to and bring together a family. Bitty, Grace, Neo and Bryn lighten the story right away, even though the family is still struggling to cope with the absence of Papa. Soon, the reader is treated to the communications of the dogs who talk to each other about the family. MacLachlan includes a quote from Tennessee Williams ("I don't want realism, I want magic!") and from herself, "Here are the ones who know magic: The young,  The old, The Brave, The Honest, The Joyful." With her own magic, she weaves these qualities into her story and characters as each one comes to know magic. Of course Elinor, being young, can hear the conversations of the dogs as well as talk to them. As do Grandma and Grandpa, Will and Elinor's maternal grandparents, the old. Two months into their father's absences Will's mother sits the children down and tells them that she is pregnant, something the dogs already know. They respond mostly with silence, although Will surprises himself by asking if his father knows this yet. When she says, "no," Will asks her why she is telling them, thinking to himself, "I was tired of being the grown-up in the house." Later, when she is saying goodnight to Will, he takes a deep breath and says, "I don't think it is fair for you not to tell Papa about the baby. I don't know how to say it . . . " And in this pause he hears Neo speaking to him. Having the courage to tell his mother what is on his mind and in his heart earns him the right to the magic as well.
After his father returns home to his family and establishes a wary acceptance with the dogs, he finds way to make the life that he wants in the midst of the family that he loves. He takes up cooking dinners to give his wife a rest and tries to find a quiet place to write at home. When Bitty, by way of Will, suggest the attic room, Will's dad likes the idea and gets it set up right away. With Will and the dogs surrounding his new attic writing room, he experiences a moment of honesty that allows him to hear the dogs as well, who suggest the first line of his next poem. By the end of the book, Will's mother, who was busy listening to the baby growing inside her and unable to hear the dogs, experiences a moment of joy that comes from a very lovely coincidence that involves a childhood wish of her husband's and a new four-footed family member.

I am in awe of the beautiful slice of life that Patrcia MacLachlan has graced us with and anxious to share it with a thoughtful, dog loving reader. 

If you enjoyed Waiting for the Magic you might also like One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street which, although a bit longer, captures the same sense of sadness, connection and wonder that some people call magic.


Jessica said...

I cried the entire time I read this book. It was beautifully written, but I found it gut-wrenching to see how difficult it was for the boy to allow himself to not just articulate his feelings about his parents' separation, but even to allow himself to experience his feelings fully.

On the one hand, the book seems intended for a pretty young audience--it is a charming, funny story with a happy ending. But on the other hand the depth of the boy's pain seems to defy that. I am not sure at what age it would be perceptible, but to me it was certainly in large part the point of the story.

One can't really say the book is appropriate for children whose parents are divorcing (and can therefore relate to his pain), because for those kids the ending will not be the same.

I did love this book, but I just don't know when I would share it with my kids or when I would recommend sharing it with kids in general. I would almost be inclined to recommend sharing it with divorcing parents.

Tanya said...

Jessica - thanks for your thoughtful comment. This is definitely a book that you think about before giving to a child. Because it's short, hopefully parents and other adults will read it and talk to the kids reading it and have a discussion.