Magic comes home: Half Magic and James and the Giant Peach
I am doing Camp NaNoWriMo this month. My project is (appropriately enough) a children’s fantasy novel and is also set in the real world. Given the anticipated length, I have set my word count goal at 45,000 words, of which I have currently written 15,092.
Half Magic by Edward Eager and James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl don’t have all that much in common at first glance. I put them together because…well, that’s what was left on my reading list, but also because of one notable property: they are set in the real world.
Now, in one sense, this is hardly extraordinary. Most children’s fantasy involves actual kids from the real world. After all, you want your readers to be able to relate to the story. But in a lot of children’s fantasy, those kids are whisked away to a far off land like Narnia, Oz, or Wonderland. Here, the magic all happens in the real world. (The technical term for this is low fantasy.) No other book that I’ve reviewed in this series does that. (The Rats of NIMH trilogy technically doesn’t have magic, just talking animals, and Mary Poppins has one chapter that takes place inside a chalk drawing.)Edward Eager wrote seven books about various children in his native Toledo, Ohio having magical adventures. Of these, Half Magic is the first and best known. Four siblings, Jane, Mark, Katherine, and Martha discover a magic coin that will grant one half of any wish that its holder makes. As they begin to make mostly inept wishes and have humorous adventures with the help of their new friend, Mr. Smith, the coin slowly changes their lives for the better until they no longer have need of it.
Roald Dahl is considered one of the greatest children’s writers of the twentieth century (and by my math was likely the top-selling middle grade author for many years). Well known for his dark humor, Dahl wrote many fantasy novels, five of which have been turned into feature films, including James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,and my favorite, Matilda. He was also a co-writer for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
James is an orphan (his parents having been eaten by a rhinoceros), living with his two abusive aunts, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. One day, a mysterious man shows up and (for no apparent reason) gives James a bag full of highly magical crocodile tongues in order to make his life better. Unfortunately, James trips and spills the tongues on the ground, where they cause a peach to grow to the size of a house and seven insects to grow to human-sized. James then climbs on board the giant peach and rolls, floats, and flies the fruit away to various bizarre adventures.
I found both of these books to be very good. They are well-written and well-paced with stories that are engaging, but still fit nicely in their 20-30,000-word packages without feeling rushed. Even when they are episodic, they still have an overall plot that binds them together. This contrasts them with Mary Poppins, where the episodes have little to nothing to do with each other, or R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, where the first problem is solved halfway through and replaced with a different one.
Roald Dahl’s dark and surreal humor is very entertaining, but Eager’s more down-to-earth style is where I take the most inspiration from in my own writing. I really enjoyed his books growing up (although I only remember reading four of them all the way through), and I hope to be able to capture that feeling in my own work.