Last month I read Any Which Wall, by Laurel Snyder, with great enjoyment. It is an homage to Edward Eager (of Half Magic fame), and succeeds brilliantly. Since then, I have been trying to find other Edward Eager read-alikes-- books where ordinary children find magic, and struggle to learn its rules and bend the will of the magic to their own, and get into many strange predicaments in the process. In this sort of book, there is no struggle between good and evil, no great epic quest that provides the plot. Instead, there are episodes of magic meeting real life, often leading to chaos that is always eventually resolved.
There aren't as many books like this as one might think, which is odd, given how widely read Eager continues to be (Half Magic is on my son's summer reading list).
In fact, even after search, I can only recommend one other, and I found it by happenstance, when a mention of an author, Nicholas Stuart Gray, caught my eye at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf. The Rhode Island library system had one of his books, The Apple Stone (1965), and in due course it arrived.
I was surprised and delighted to find it a perfectly Eager-ish book.
Three English children (1 brother, the narrator, and his 2 sisters), and their two Scottish cousins (both boys), are spending an idle afternoon in the apple orchard, when Missie, the youngest, finds a small, wrinkled apple.
“It’s magic, “ said Missie.
We all gaped at her. She was the last person you’d expect to turn whimsy on you. Then Douglas laughed, and she gave him a very cold look.
“What a kiddish thing to say,” he scoffed.
“A very sensible thing to say,” said the apple.
Missie dropped it as if it were red hot.
“Clumsy!” it squeaked. No one else said spoke at all. We sat with dropped jaws and bulging eyes. I thought if my mind was going to wander this far, I’d better get it inspected or something. But the apple went on talking, in a small, soft voice that sounded extremely irritable.
“First they shake me off my tree; then they fling me about as though I were a mere and useless trifle! And they dare to laugh, when one guesses at my quality. Rude, ignorant, and totally irresponsible infants!”
“We’re not infants,” said Douglas. But he didn’t sound any too sure of this. Missie went on hands and knees to where the apple lay.
“Don’t be cross,” said she, “we didn’t mean it.” (page 13)
And so the five children become acquainted with the magical and occasionally irascible apple stone, and learn its power--it can bring any inanimate thing to life. Some of the uses to which the children put the stone are benign and pleasant, more are fraught with difficulties, as is the way of these magical things, until you learn the rules...
There are funny encounters, like the old glove that dreads the lost and found, and longs for its lost Hand, and a few that are educational, like the tales told by a stone effigy from the church of life as a Crusader under King Richard. Some wishes go rather wrong, like the old rug that becomes a beast and takes off after the sheep, and a seemingly harmless attempt to save time rolling the lawn, by bringing a round gatepost stone to life, turns dire.
And some are scary, like a feather boa that becomes a deadly serpent.
"The snake went on circling, but its forked tongue flickered in its open mouth; a few drops of saliva fell, and the wooden planks of the attic floor turned white as though some frightful acid had soaked them.
"Ssssssacrifice..." whispered the serpent.
It was at the far end of the room, and suddenly it stayed still there, gaping fixedly into the open door of the toy cupboard, its red eyes level with the top shelf. It gave a long hiss. And something hissed back.
"Oh, no!" said Jo. "Not Mrs. Blossom!" (p 123)
As the children experiment with the stone, it becomes heavier and heavier with the weight of its new experiences. At last, it is too much for them to carry anymore, and they must decide if they will use its power on the last, most important wish of all, and give up the magic themselves.
I dunno if I have any readers in Rhode Island, but if I do, there is one library copy of The Apple Stone back on the shelf, and there seem to be a number of ex-library copies out in the world as well, from library systems that were not as wise as ours.
Neil Gaiman is a fan of Gray, calling him "one of those authors I loved as a boy who holds up even better on rereading as an adult." There are three more of his books in our library system, waiting for me to check them out, which is a rather nice feeling.