I put these two writers together because of how inextricably their writing styles are connected in my mind. That, and because I only discovered E Nesbit through Edward Eager’s books.
I’m not sure how old I was when Mom helped me find this great-looking book in our local library – green and white hardcover, with a front figure who was half girl, half knight (and a very smug cat in the background). It looked terrific, so we brought it home to read.
That book was Half Magic, by Edward Eager, and not just me, but my mother and sister fell in love with the four siblings, who squabbled and worked together and had fun and were thoroughly human. The magic was perfect, too – not only was it not magic that just came easily to them, they didn’t even understand its rules. As Eager himself put it, first it thwarted them, then they had to learn how to thwart it, and in the end, when they had finally learned how to work it well, they gave it up for something better.
When we went back to the library the next week, we promptly checked out all the rest of Eager’s books, and loved almost all of them just as much. I’ve never been quite as fond of Magic or Not? or The Well-Wishers, but even those I’ve grown to appreciate more as I’ve gotten older. Knight’s Castle led me to read Ivanhoe at age twelve (no easy task, but well worth the effort), and I remember building Lego castles to imitate Torquilstone for months after.
In each of his books, Eager’s children reference reading E Nesbit’s books. This, naturally, led me to search for some of her works, as well. Mom was familiar with the Bastable books, but not the others. I think the first one I read (also borrowed from the local library) was Wet Magic, a solid red hardcover with no dustjacket, looking alluringly thick and mysterious. From there I discovered The Phoenix and the Carpet, and all the rest of her wonderful works.
Confession: I actually prefer Eager to Nesbit. I know she was a pioneer, and I admire her tremendously, but sometimes I feel there’s almost too much of a hard edge to her stories. Eager’s are a bit more light-hearted, and I enjoy that – though that’s a matter of personal taste, and I can certainly see why someone else might prefer Nesbit for that very reason.
My favorite Nesbit book, as it was for the children of Half Magic, is The Enchanted Castle, and when my parents got me the hardcover with Paul O Zelinsky’s stunning illustrations for a birthday present one year, I was thrilled (I think it might have been one of the first hardcovers I ever owned – if not the first, then one of the very earliest). I still have that book, displayed prominently on my shelves.
Through Eager and Nesbit, I learned the fun in reading – and writing – real people, as opposed to caricatures. I learned that reading about children arguing and teasing each other, and making up, and being loyal to each other through it all, just like my sister and my cousins and me, was delightful. I learned that one didn’t have to fall through a rabbit hole, walk through a wardrobe, or travel by tornado to find magic – it just might be lurking around the next corner. One should always keep ones eyes open, because one never knew when magic might happen.
And really, what better way to live than in that kind of delightful anticipation? I might never have found actual magic (by the way, what a great title for a book – Actual Magic), but I certainly found the world a very magical place all on its own, just by keeping my eyes open to its possibilities.
I’ve always found it very sad that there was no successor to Eager, as he was successor to Nesbit. Others have imitated, but nobody else has come close to matching their style, their wit, and their fun.
I’ve always had a sneaking hope that maybe, someday, I might be able to take up that mantle. After all, if I benefited so much from reading them, oughtn’t I help point the way back to them for future generations of readers, as well?