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Literature / Half Magic

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Half Magic is a children's fantasy novel by Edward Eager, first published in 1954.

Siblings Jane, Mark, Katherine, and Martha, are faced with a long, boring summer with nothing to look forward to but library books. Their mother spends most of her time working after the children's father died, leaving them 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, and a strange series of coincidences begin to occur. 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, wrecking 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:

  • Ancient Artifact: The Arabic trader seems to recognize the symbols on the charm, as does Merlin. Jane's temporary replacement mother identifies the writing on the charm as 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.
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  • 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 latest trip to the library.
  • Compressed Hair: Katherine 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.
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  • 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.
  • Genius Bonus: When Jane wishes to belong to another family, her new name is Iphigenia. In Greek mythology, Iphigenia was a famous child sacrificial victim.
  • 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.
  • 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: Katherine 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, Katherine 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.
  • 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: Katherine 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, Katherine 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.
  • Nature vs. 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.
  • 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.
  • Outnumbered Sibling: Mark is the only boy in a family of four children and his frustration with this is occasionally a plot point.
  • 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, and 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).
  • 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 dialogue cards for her.
  • 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: Katherine 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 deliberately makes a wish on the charm to prevent the children from using it to travel beyond their own place and time, both to protect the children and to keep them from wrecking havoc on history.
  • 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 Stepmother: 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.)


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