60 pages 2 hours read

Edward Eager, N. M. Bodecker, Alice Hoffman

Half Magic

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1954

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1954, American author Edward Eager’s novel Half Magic is a classic in children’s fantasy literature. Illustrated by N. M. Bodecker, this novel is the first in a seven-book series dubbed The Tales of Magic. Set 1920s Toledo, Ohio, Half Magic follows four siblings—Jane, Mark, Katharine, and Martha—who find a magic coin that grants half wishes. Their adventures span another country and a different time, but mostly land them in tricky situations in their own hometown. Told from a third-person omniscient point of view, the narrative highlights the themes of The Paradox of Wishing, The Need for Precise Language and Clear Thinking, and The Value of Rules and Structure.

Although primarily a playwright and lyricist, Eager is most known for his children’s literature, of which Half Magic was his first work. Influenced by the English children’s writer and poet Edith “E.” Nesbit, Eager penned this novel for his son.

This guide refers to the 1999 Harcourt Young Classics edition of the text.

Content Warning: The source material contains depictions of antisemitism, racial stereotypes, and gender discrimination, as well as a scene of graphic violence.

Plot Summary

Chapter 1 introduces the children and their desire for a thrilling summer. While their mother works (their father has died), the siblings are restricted by their caretaker, Miss Bick. After reading The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit, they long for magical adventures of their own. Jane, the eldest, finds a nickel on the sidewalk and pockets it, not realizing it magically grants half wishes. Bored, Jane wishes for a fire. Instantly, fire trucks zoom by, and the children discover that an outdoor playhouse is ablaze. Mesmerized by the possibility that Jane caused it, they assume that she has magical powers.

Later, during a long visit with relatives, their mother, Alison, wishes she were home, and immediately finds herself alone on a dark road halfway to her destination. A car approaches, and the driver offers her a side. Despite herself, Alison reveals what happened, blaming it on memory loss, and accepts a ride from the stranger. At home, Jane worries about her lost nickel and discovers that her mother has borrowed, but not used, it. After asking her mother a few questions, Jane realizes the nickel is a magic charm. Retreating to her room, she hides it in a shoe bag.

The next morning, while Jane sleeps, Martha accidentally causes their cat to talk. Then Mark takes his roller skates from the shoe bag, oblivious of the coin inside. Panicky about the cat, Katharine and Martha wake Jane, who explains everything. When they cannot find the charm, they deduce that it is in Mark’s skates, so they race after him.

While Mark skates, he makes various wishes, unaware that the coin is in his possession. When his sisters find him, he wishes they were on a desert island. Instantly, they materialize in the Sahara, and the girls explain everything. He takes off his skates, accidentally flinging the coin into the sand. As the kids dig for it, a man named Achmed approaches. Warily, they follow him to an oasis.

There, they realize they still have the charm. Achmed says it belongs to his people and the children have stolen it, but Mark appeases Achmed by wishing him a new caravan, a wife, and children. When the wish is granted, the children return home and reverse the accidental wishes of the morning.

The following day, Katharine uses the charm to transport them to King Arthur’s Camelot. After meeting Sir Launcelot (Eager uses an alternate spelling of Lancelot), the children witness his kidnapping at the hands of the enchantress Morgan le Fay and three knights. Trapping her with magic, the children pursue the kidnappers to her castle. There, they spy the knights and make a wish that accidentally results in their gruesome deaths. The children then release Launcelot. However, he wants to defeat the knights himself. Annoyed at his lack of gratitude, Katharine obliges and revives them with magic.

Then, the children materialize at a tournament where King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Merlin preside. Launcelot arrives and easily dispatches his opponents. Still irritated, Katharine wishes to defeat him. When she does and reveals that she is a girl, Merlin extracts the truth from the children. Before they return home, he restores order, limits their wishes, and warns of the charm’s limited capabilities.

After a night’s sleep, the children take a streetcar downtown for lunch and a movie. All goes well, until Martha impulsively wishes to be elsewhere. However, she becomes ghostlike, only half present. Consequently, Jane wishes she never heard of the charm. After inciting chaos everywhere, Martha flees, and her siblings chase her. She takes refuge in a bookstore run by Mr. Smith, the gentleman who escorted her mother home the other night. The others enter a jewelry store, interrupting a robbery. Extricating themselves, the siblings reunite in the bookstore to learn that Mr. Smith also believes in magic. The thieves enter, and, using the charm, Mark restrains them. Martha restores order (and her own appearance) but makes one mistake: Her mother appears and then faints. After recovering, Alison is pleased to see Mr. Smith, and everyone spends the evening together.

The next day, all are content, except Jane, who, remembering her father, does not wish for Mr. Smith to become their stepfather. While angry, she wishes to belong to a different family. Shocked, her siblings watch as a snobby girl leaves, taking the charm with her. Before Mark, Katharine, and Martha can find Jane, their mother and Mr. Smith arrive. With the man’s help, they determine Jane’s location to be in another house under the watch of a cold woman. Mr. Smith concocts a plan to retrieve the charm, but, in the process, the children stumble in, and their trickery is revealed. Mr. Smith snatches the talisman, restores Jane, and departs with the children. Jane expresses gratitude and love to Mr. Smith.

The children ignore the charm the following day while the family picnics with Mr. Smith, and the next morning, he invites the children to the bookstore to share that he has proposed to their mother. However, even though Alison cares for Mr. Smith, she rejects him because she worries that she is ill. Impulsively, the children transport everyone to their mother’s office, where they attempt to change her mind. She believes nothing and grows increasingly more upset. At each child’s wish, Mr. Smith cautions them, but they continue to wish until he restores order and instills a belief in magic in Alison. She agrees to marriage, and the charm is no longer necessary, for they are all happy.

In the final chapter, Jane worries about her father. Falling asleep with the charm under her pillow, she wishes he were there; he appears in her thoughts and shares his happiness for them all.

Their mother and Mr. Smith marry and buy a lake house. As the children pack for the summer, Jane spies the charm. The children opt to leave it for someone else, preferably a child. Downtown, they leave it for a girl and her baby sister to find, but the baby swallows it. Oblivious, her sister lifts her, wishing she were lighter, and the baby begins to bounce, almost weightless. On the baby’s final bounce, the coin flies out of her mouth, and the sister examines it. The siblings watch as understanding dawns on her. The children depart, leaving the girl to discover the charm’s secrets.

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