The Best Books Your Children
Probably Aren't Reading!
The Betsy-Tacy Stories
The Magic World of Edward Eager
Have the children in your house read the Harry Potter series until the covers are falling off? Have Have Have hhhIt might be time to discover Edward Eager, a novelist for middle-grade children who worked in the 50s and early 60s. Eager wrote stories of fantasy and magic where ordinary children got caught up in extraordinary events. His work includes “Half Magic,” 1954; “Knight’s Castle,” 1956; “Magic By the Lake,” 1957; “The Time Garden,” 1958; “Magic or Not?,” 1959; “The Well-Wishers,” 1960; and “Seven-Day Magic,” 1962.
There’s a lot to like here. Eager’s children are quick and quirky, with minor personality differences but no nastiness. Though there are adults looking out for them, they are resourceful and solve their own problems. And there are problems to solve and issues to deal with. While Eager’s books aren’t dark, real life has a way of intruding: a lonely widowed mother in “Half Magic,” a father’s work threatened in “Seven-Day Magic,” and a father’s life-threatening illness in “Knight’s Castle.” Eager infuses his stories with a sly wit and real-style sibling squabbles. In “Half Magic,” when an exasperated Jane puts Martha under the seat for talking during a movie, it’s believable.
“Knight’s Castle” is my favorite for a number of reasons. Ann and Roger come with their parents to Baltimore to stay at their Aunt Katherine’s house, while their father undergoes treatment for a serious illness. The adults are weary and preoccupied, and Ann and Roger, along with cousins Jack and Eliza, provide their own entertainment. For Roger, that means creating a tin can and cereal box city where he can play with the tiny tin knights his uncle Mark sent him. When the toys come alive at night and begin enacting their own version of “Ivanhoe,” the magic begins.
In “Half Magic,” Jane, Mark, Katherine and Martha face a lonely, boring summer while their widowed mother works. All that changes when they find an ancient coin, and the coin has magical properties when they rub it. The rub to that? The coin only gives them half of their wish, so they have to practice math skills to get what they really want. It’s all done with humor and grace, and at the end of the summer the children have what they really want, a loving stepfather.
Eager's books make use of ordinary objects, a coin, a toy soldier, a wishing well, and especially a book. In “Seven-Day Magic,” his last book for children, Barnaby, Abbie, John, Susan and Fredericka check out a library book that turns out to be more, recording every word they say and taking them on new magical adventures. It’s an unwitting, or maybe deliberate homage to the rest of Eager’s work, and a fitting way to close out his children’s collection.
The children in Eager’s stories are readers, and the books themselves bear out the fact that reading begets reading. My younger daughter read “Knight’s Castle” in third grade, and it sparked her interest in reading ”Ivanhoe.” In third grade. To this day, she can tell you how to set up for a tournament, the fine details of being a Templar and the rules of courtly love. That was a fun summer. I wish we’d homeschooled and she could have gotten credit for it.
The books are available online, I checked, and in any library where the children’s librarian has enough sense to realize that a good book isn’t limited by its publication date.
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While the stories are pre-feminism, they give each girl, then woman, the space to be who she is. The Amazing Joe Willard encourages Betsy to continue to write, because he knows it’s part of who she is. Tib is a career woman, designing windows for a big downtown store in Minneapolis, and nobody encourages her to marry just for the sake of marrying, although she eventually meets the man of her dreams. Tacy embraces home-keeping, but it’s her own choice and she’s magnificent at it.
And Betsy showed THIS little girl that it was possible to put words together to make sentences, and sentences to make paragraphs, and paragraphs to make pages and stories and books. Betsy, scribbling in a five-penny tablet in her tree house, was my first role model as a writer.
The series was reissued a few years ago and should be available online or in libraries.