Magic by the Book by Nina Bernstein
It’s hard not to appreciate a book whose author clearly intends it to be a literary homage to some all-time favorite young fantasy authors: E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, Mary Norton, etc. And whether the tribute is subtle in terms of theme or visuals or plot or more directly stated, as when one of the characters references a book by the above mentioned authors, it is always done without a sense of irony — there’s a sincere sense of love there.
Unfortunately, Bernstein didn’t channel enough of those authors in her writing, as Magic by the Book falls woefully short of its models. The title book that mysteriously appears one day in a basket of library books, sweeps three young children (Anne, Emily, and Will) into its pages and into adventure. In the first, Anne and Emily meet Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest and help to avoid a major disaster. In the second, Will shrinks down in size and acts as battle champion/questor for the good inhabitants of his backyard garden, threatened by a nasty bug and his army of insects. And finally all three get swept into an alternate War and Peace and they try to save the book itself from some sort of wolfman.
The three set pieces vary in quality but none is particularly strong. The Robin Hood section feels a bit perfunctory and flat. Will’s section is the most wildly inventive and by far the most engaging, but it lags somewhat by its end. And the last section feels almost insubstantial, not quite all there, as if it were rushed in to beat a deadline.
Will is the most alive of the three children, Emily the least so, and Anne falls somewhere in the middle. The last section offers a glimpse of stronger characterization with regard to Anne but just enough to tease and then finally disappoint as its never really fully explored or resolved. The children’s speech patterns are somewhat inconsistent, seeming to shift between age-appropriate and more adult. The family dynamics among the three are nicely handled and are probably one of the book’s strong points, though again more could have been done with them. And there’s a nice focus on the power of reading.
One kept pulling for this book based on its obvious inspirations, but in the end it never came off as a choice companion to those other books or as its own standalone. If anything, it performs its tribute in untended fashion, showing just how rare, just how special, is the literary magic of those authors like Nesbit, Norton, and Eager. And thus the recommendation to try them rather than Magic by the Book.
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