My girls and I read The Magic Half by Annie Barrows last month in preparation for participation in a Mother-Daughter Bookclub at one of our libraries. (This book is not to be confused with Half Magic by Edward Eager.) Honestly, it’s one of those books I probably wouldn’t have picked up myself because I generally avoid books containing magic, unless I know it’s the acceptable kind of magic. (That sentence is tongue-in-cheek. Sort of.) As it turned out, it wasn’t the magic so much that I didn’t like in the story as it was other elements. The magic is of the time-travel kind. A beleaguered middle child sandwiched uncomfortably between older twin brothers and younger twin sisters, Miri is sent to her room for hitting one of her brothers with a shovel. In her new bedroom in her family’s new-to-them but very old house, she finds what appears to be a lens to a pair of glasses. When she looks through it, she finds her transported back in time to the world of Molly, a Depression-era girl who lived in Miri’s home. Molly’s life is very difficult. She lives with her aunt and two cousins, and none of them like her very much. Her grandmother lives there, too, but she is ill and not of much help to Molly beyond offering her love and moral support. (This actually counts for a good bit in the story, as it turns out.) Molly’s male teenaged cousin Horst is the worst; his treatment on Molly borders on abuse–at best, he is the epitome of a bully. Miri knows she has been sent (or called for?) to rescue Molly, but how?
Once upon a time in a graduate English independent study course, I wrote a lengthy annotated paper on time travel novels for middle graders. I actually like the genre quite a bit. What I didn’t care for in this story is what I find so jarring in many modern novels–coarse language, cruelty, and sibling rivalry and dissonance in the extreme. The thing I noticed about the language that bothered me most is that Miri uses God’s name in vain a couple of times as if it’s a modern matter-of-course, but Molly notices and is shocked by it. In my opinion, the message this sends is that the idea of God’s name being sacred is old-fashioned and outmoded, and I definitely don’t believe that. Thankfully, since I read this one aloud, I was able to expurgate it, which I did quite a bit. I struggle with when I will let my girls read things that I know have elements I don’t approve of. I know that everything they read will not always be squeaky clean, and I want to be able to talk to them about it and prepare them for it. I definitely don’t want them to grow desensitized to it.
Anyway, with the above caveats, my girls loved this story. It’s very exciting, with almost every chapter ending in a cliffhanger. I’m not sure I would’ve persevered with it had we not been reading it for to discuss with others, but in the end I think the discussion made the time spent reading it worthwhile. I was interested to note that Annie Barrows also co-wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a story I really enjoyed several years ago. My girls have never read Barrows’ popular Ivy + Bean series, mostly due to my aforementioned prejudice against books containing magic. However, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for what Barrows publishes in the future. (Bloomsbury, 2008)