Edward Eager’s Half Magic is a fantastic book about four kids who discover a magic talisman and then have all sorts of adventures. (You may remember Matt Blum’s excellent review, which inspired me to read it.) It was followed by Magic by the Lake, which I’ve also read now, and a few other books involving magic but with different characters. The stories take place in the 1920s, and were written in the 1950s, but they still hold up surprisingly well. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find a new book at our library which recalls those magical adventures.
Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder builds on Eager’s traditions and introduces four present-day kids to the world of magical adventures. And the debt to Eager is explicit: much as the Half Magic kids read Edith Nesbit’s books, the kids in Any Which Wall are fans of Magic by the Lake. When they first encounter magic, they automatically associate it with the books they’ve read and set to work figuring out rules they should obey. The story takes place in Quiet Falls, Iowa, a small rural town, so the story still feels a lot like Eager’s—cell phones and computers exist, but at the same time these kids spend a lot of time outdoors on their bikes. The dialogue and language is a little more up-to-date too, which I admit was part of the charm of Eager’s books but also made them a little harder for my five-year-old to follow.
Henry and Emma O’Dell and Susan and Roy Levy are neighbors and good friends. Susan, the oldest, is twelve and is getting to the point where she’s really not sure she wants to be hanging out with her kid brother and his friend. Henry and Roy are the same age and best friends, but Henry’s more of a Dennis the Menace type and Roy is quiet and curious. Emma, the youngest, is (of course) opinionated and spunky. On a hot summer day (because kids have much more time for magic adventures during summer break) the four kids ride their bikes out into a cornfield and discover a massive stone wall, inexplicably out of place. What they discover (after a few missteps and false starts) is that the wall can become any other wall, taking them with it.
Once they figure out the rules, they travel to Merlin’s castle, an American frontier town, and New York City, among other places. There’s danger and excitement, but there’s also a note from the author that sometimes you can have a fun adventure without being chased by bad guys, just spending time with your friends and having a good day. Snyder strikes a balance between following some of the tropes from Eager’s stories (which the kids expect) and subverting them to make the story her own, and it really works. For readers who are familiar with Eager’s books, it’s like a little wink, acknowledging her roots but branching out in new directions.
I liked the fact that Snyder promotes non-conformity. Susan’s struggle, intentionally or not, reflects a similar struggle had by Susan Pevensie of the Narnia series. In later books, Peter claimed “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations” and it appears that she’s decided that her past in Narnia was make-believe and has become a “silly, conceited young woman.” Susan Levy, at the beginning of Any Which Wall, has become a bit more standoffish, preferring to hang out with other middle schoolers rather than playing, but the magic makes her think twice about who she really is. Later on, we encounter a librarian named Lily who is rather unconventional, and shows Susan that growing up doesn’t mean you suddenly have to be like everyone else.
Finally, there’s a great love of books. Any Which Wall is book propaganda: it’s definitely portrayed as the right choice to love books, and that’s quite all right with me. If you’ve enjoyed Edith Nesbit and Edward Eager, you should definitely check this one out.