I've revisited this post--here's the more current version!
Fans of Edward Eager who might be reading this, run, don't walk, to get your hands on this book when it comes out on May 26, in both the US and the UK! Eager might have written his last book (Seven Day Magic) back in 1962, but Any Which Wall, by Laurel Snyder (Random House, 2009, 242pp, middle grade), continues Eager's tradition in really delightful way.
Since Eager, and before Snyder, there don't seem to have been any books written about common, ordinary magic--books with normal, everyday children stumbling across magic in the everyday world, and gradually learning its rules, and taming it, and bending it to their wills...Laurel Snyder set out to pay homage to Eager by writing just such a book, and succeeds brilliantly.
Henry and his little sister Emma, Henry's best friend Roy and his big sister Susan (who has to "look after" the others) are not particularly looking forward to a long, hot, Iowa summer. Then they find the Wall, a wall in the middle of a cornfield, a wall that isn't walling anything...a wall that is magic, and will take them to any other wall that ever might have been. Wizards, pirates, outlaws, a lovable, and enormous dog who needs a home, and more, await them, in a splendiferously fun journey through time and space in the best Edward Eager tradition of great characterization, brisk writing, and snappy dialogue among the children.
Any middle grade kid, boy or girl, with a sense of humor and a sense of adventure should enjoy this lots.
I was reading the book so briskly that I skipped the illustrations, which are by LeUyen Pham. Like the words, the pictures are both contemporary, and slightly old-fashioned, and suit the story beautifully. Here's the picture of the kids meeting Merlin:
But there is more to this book than the fun of the magical adventure, and I'm not quite sure what kids will make of this other aspect. It is, almost, a moral.
Keen readers will notice that the oldest girl, who is "friends" with the beautiful girls of her middle school, and who disposed of her unicorn collection a while ago, is named Susan--shades of other fictional Susans who were also the older, less imaginative, and less fun girls (Narnia, Swallows and Amazons). Before the magic entered her life, this Susan was well on her way to becoming a boring, normative, and judgemental wearer of lipstick (like the Narnia Susan). In the course of the various adventures, she realizes that she can be, once again, an imaginative child, and that this might be a better thing to be. She is keenly aware of this transformation in herself, and Snyder, authoritatively, makes sure the reader is aware of it too.
An audience of folks in their forties (or so), with families and jobs who nonetheless love children's books, will cheer for Susan and think fondly of their own unicorn (or zombie?) collections. I dunno what a kid, unencumbered by any grownup-ness, would make of this. Will it knock them out of the story? Will they be oblivious? Will they say, Yes! Let me have fun, and believe, and enjoy life....I still had my unicorn collection until I was 15, so maybe I would have found this part of the book validating. I don't think, though, that I would have appreciated Snyder's somewhat intrusive authorial aside (several pages in italics) toward the end of the book, in which she extols the importance of plain old fun (even though I agree with what she says).
But that being said, it is so awfully nice to have books like this one, that are themselves good, plain fun (and smart and funny). And I hope it sells really really well so that the vague promise of more to come at the end (in the best tradition of this sort of book) becomes reality.
Mini Author Interview (thanks Laurel!)
Me: Did you name Susan "Susan" on purpose?
Laurel: Yes, and no. Susan was named for my best friend, since the others were named for my own sibs. At the same time, I thought a lot about Lewis' Susan, and about how kids always have to "outgrow" magic. So I think the name actually affected the story...
Me, hopefully: Sequel????
Laurel: Sequel, yes, in the planning stages. I'm not really a sequel person, but I feel tempted to follow Susan and Roy (as their father gets a job) to Baltimore. If the sequel happens, it will be about how an older kid might "use" Common Magic, when confronting a more adult view of a new (problematic) place. It's (in my head) called "Anywhere Green" and hops around the parks of Baltimore City.
Me: Yes, please.
If anyone can think of any other fantasy books that are ordinary in the same sense, where the magic doesn't have anything to do with good and evil, or strange realms beyond our own, or children with magical gifts, do let me know. I want to read them).
Here's a link to an article that Snyder wrote about Jewish Kid's Lit, and her own last minute change to Any Which Wall that resulted from her thoughts on the matter.
Here's a link to an interview with Snyder from this week's Summer Blog Blast Tour, that tells how A.W.W. came to be written.
Here's another review of A.W.W. at Jen Robinson's Book Page, and another at Never Jam Today.
Disclosure: copy received from the publisher at the request of the author, who knew I was an Eager fan and therefore predisposed to like the book already--but I think I would have anyway!