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Literature / Half Magic

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Be Careful What You Wish For; you just might get...half of it.
Half Magic is a children's fantasy novel by Edward Eager, first published in 1954.

Siblings Jane, Mark, Katharine, and Martha are faced with a long, boring summer with nothing to look forward to but library books. Ever since their father died, their mother spends most of her time working to support the family, leaving the children with not a lot of money or opportunity for summer adventures. All that changes when Jane calls dibs on a nickel lying on the sidewalk, triggering a strange series of coincidences. The "nickel" seems to jump between the children, all of whom quickly find themselves caught in inexplicable jams until they finally realize that the nickel is actually a magical charm that grants wishes by halves. It's a simple matter of mathematics to get exactly what you want, so long as you don't do anything rash—which of course, they do. Their wishes leave them stranded in the middle of the desert, wreaking chaos on King Arthur's court, and causing a mass panic when one of the children accidentally becomes half-invisible.

But sometimes the charm seems to have a mind of its own...almost as if it's deliberately leading the children, wish by misguided wish, toward their own happy ending.

This novel contains examples of:

  • Affectionate Nickname:
    • Mr. Smith invites the children to call him by his first name of Hugo. They reject this and nickname him "Hugh."
    • Jane's nickname from her new family is "Little Comfort," which makes her siblings gag.
    • Mark sometimes calls his eldest sister "Janice" (or "Jane-ice") as an term of endearment.
  • Ancient Artifact: The Arabic trader seems to recognize the symbols on the charm, as does Merlin. Jane's temporary replacement mother believes the writing on the charm is Sanskrit. Whatever it is, it seems to have been around for a long, long time.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: The youngest child Martha has a habit of getting bored and tiring out quickly, which causes her to whine and complain.
  • "Arabian Nights" Days: Where the children are transported when Mark wishes to go to a desert island. They get the desert half, but not the island.
  • Author Appeal: The novel is set in Eager's childhood home Toledo, Ohio, and contains numerous references to author E. Nesbit, whose children's books inspired Eager to write his own.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Jane, angry at her siblings, starts to announce that she wishes she wasn't part of their family, remembers she's touching the charm... and turns it into a deliberate wish. Within a few moments of joining the family the wish makes her part of, she regrets it.
  • Bookworm: All the children are this, and the book opens as they're returning from their latest trip to the library.
  • Born of Magic: The children find out that Achmed once had the charm but lost it for many years. To make things right, Mark makes a wish on it to give him whatever he would desire most, which turns out to include six children of his own (and a wife).
  • Compressed Hair: Katharine whips off her helmet after defeating one of King Arthur's knights, with her long brown hair revealing that she is female... and also nine years old.
  • Cool Big Sis: Jane, while sometimes bossy and stubborn, is usually genuinely nice to her siblings.
  • Deceased Parents Are the Best: While all the other kids are happy to have Mr. Smith for a stepfather, Jane, the eldest child who remembers their father the best, can't quite warm up the idea.
  • Free-Range Children: It's the 1920s, they have a mother who works, and it's the safest, most boring town in the world, so the children have free run of the neighborhood and are allowed to take the bus downtown by themselves.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Mr. Smith proposes to the children's mother after they've only known each other for a week. In their defense, it's an extremely eventful week.
  • Genre Savvy: The kids are well-versed in E. Nesbit and other children's fantasy books, so when magical events start happening to them, they're quick to catch on. For example, they consider wishing for endless wealth, but remember that whenever anyone wishes for that in a story, it always backfires.
  • Happily Married:
    • When the children find out the charm previously belonged to the Arabian trader, Mark uses it to give him "twice as much of whatever he would wish for with it." That turns out to be younger, healthier camels, new harnesses for said camels, valuable goods for trading, a loving wife, and six children.
    • While the wedding doesn't happen in the book, the children's mother's final wish is to be happily married to Mr. Smith, who is only too glad to grant it.
  • Heel Realization: Katherine has a nasty one after beating Sir Lancelot and realizing she just wanted to get back at him out of spite.
  • Here We Go Again!: When their turn is over, the children leave the charm on the sidewalk where they found it, where it's picked up by a young girl. Before they leave, the girl has vanished on her own magical adventure.
  • Hero of Another Story:
    • The Arabian trader owned the charm before the children and apparently lost it at some point.
    • The little girl and her infant sibling who inherit the charm at the end.
  • Identity Amnesia: Jane wishes to belong to a different family and promptly forgets her real family, as well as her own name.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Mr. Smith turns out to be one of those rare adults who truly understands children, and the siblings befriend him even before they find out he's going to be their new stepfather.
  • I Was Beaten by a Girl: Katharine wishes to beat Sir Lancelot in a joust, and then has to unwish it when Lancelot is mocked by the other knights who taunt him with that very phrase ("Lancelot's a churl! Beaten by a girl!"). Though in this case it's more that she wished to be five times better than Sir Lancelot at fighting without also wishing to not be, to all appearances, an untrained child.
  • Literal Genie: Other than cutting wishes in half, the charm works this way. For example, Katharine wishes to beat Lancelot in a joust, but at first it's a Curb-Stomp Battle in the other direction, because she didn't wish to know how to joust or to be good at it.
  • The Magic Comes Back:
    • After it seems the charm's used up its last wish, it relents and grants one more: Jane senses her father reassuring her that it's okay to love her new stepfather.
    • The children secretly pass the charm on to another child, causing it to spring back to life.
  • Make a Wish: Later in the book it becomes deliberate, although the granting of the first few wishes is a complete surprise.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The charm's final wish.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Katharine complains that Jane is the eldest, Martha is the baby, and Mark has his own status as the only boy, leaving her stranded in the middle.
  • Motor Mouth: An attempt to reverse the wish that Carrie the cat could talk results in her being silent half the time, and this the other half.
  • Mundane Wish: The kids offer their mother a wish on the charm and, when she declines, Katharine wishes on their mother's behalf that all her wishes will come true (twice). The result: the mother's love interest is now clean-shaven, and he and she get a brief romantic moment with bells and the smell of flowers.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: The family cat Carrie is named after Carrie Chapman Catt, a women's suffrage leader whose name Martha saw in a newspaper.
  • Nature Versus Nurture: Invoked by name when Jane wishes to be part of some other family. While she now belongs to a different family with a different upbringing, she's still Jane, and her innermost self rebels.
  • Nightmare Fuel: Invoked in universe when Jane realizes that Martha has just wished herself half-gone. She gets a horrible mental image of her sister bisected at the waist and wonders which gruesome half will be left when she checks. Subverted when she finally looks; Martha is all there, just fogged-out and ghostly.
    • The Green, Red, and Black Knights who capture Lancelot end up hacking one another to bits in a quarrel. There's a moment when Katharine wishes them alive again, and the children are greatly amused watching the various pieces of different-colored knights reassemble themselves.
  • Numerological Motif: The charm requires the user to wish for twice as much as they want, which gets difficult when you must figure out how to be twice as much as half-visible.
  • The One Guy: Mark is the only boy in his household.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Happens twice.
    • After a wish goes horribly wrong, the children go through a brief stage where they want to avoid magic at all costs. They spend the day playing card games and ask their mother to read them a dull, mundane children's book where nothing at all supernatural happens, rather than a fairy tale. Later that night, their mom creeps into bedrooms to check temperatures to make sure they're feeling okay.
    • After wishing herself into a different family for a day, Jane becomes so sweet-tempered and patient with her siblings and so helpful around the house that their mother is instantly suspicious.
  • Parent with New Paramour: The kids introduce their mother to the new paramour, and are mostly quite happy with the whole situation — except that they think it'd be strange to call him "father", so he gets declared an Honorary Uncle.
  • Public Domain Character: Characters from Arthurian Legend.
  • "Reading Is Cool" Aesop: There's a suspicious lot of literacy in this book: the children are all bookworms who think library day is the best day of the week, their mother works at a newspaper, Mr. Smith runs a bookshop, many of their adventures are based on whatever the kids have been reading that week (Mark, for example, has been reading Robinson Crusoe and wishes them to a desert island), and there's a lot of random literary quotes and allusions that most young readers won't catch until they're several years older.
  • The Roaring '20s: Half Magic is set in 1924, though the year doesn't have a lot to do with the plot save for a short scene at the movies where Martha, who's too young to read, complains that none of her siblings will read the intertitle cards for her.
  • Sanity Slippage: The kids think they've been covering their tracks from their mother. In reality, they've been covering just enough of their tracks to make her think she's losing her mind, a fact that crops up at an awkward moment.
  • Speech-Impaired Animal: Carrie The Cat, who can temporarily half-talk thanks to an ill-considered wish.
  • Struggling Single Mother: The children's mother really resents her low-paying, underappreciated job and wishes she could spend more time with her children.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Katharine at the tournament at Camelot.
  • These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: Invoked.
    • While the children are planning how to get the most out of their magic charm, some of the potential wishes are world peace and infinite knowledge. These are vetoed because they sound a bit too much like playing God.
    • After causing chaos in Camelot, Merlin makes a wish on the charm to prevent it from being used to travel beyond its own place and time, both to protect the children and to keep them from wreaking havoc on history.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Downplayed with Lancelot. He does thanks the children for rescuing him but is rather dubious about being saved by magic and has them restore the knights so he can have a proper fight.
  • Wasteful Wishing: Once they realize the charm is magic and figure out how it works, the characters avert this, being careful not to make too many wishes because they don't know how many they'll get.
  • Wicked Stepfather: Jane is against her mother marrying Mr. Smith, allegedly because stepfathers always turn out to be evil. (Actually, she's just uncomfortable with the idea of a stepfather because she remembers her father.)