Unpacking some boxes after moving offices, I found a copy of The 13th is Magic! (1950), written by Joan Howard (the pen-name of Rene and Patricia Prud’Hommeaux) and, illustrated by Adrienne Adams. In it, a small black cat moves into the apartment building flat of two New York children, Ronald and Gillian. The children name it Merlin. Soon, magical things happen. The children discover a mysterious 13th floor, which they’ve never seen before. In its corridor, a tall thin numismatist counts fairy gold, while a round man wearing many layers of jumpers and jackets, lumbers past with a rolling gait.. A weatherman named Mr Weatherby, runs a Weather Bureau there, and gives the children an unusual box with a beautiful golden key.
I’ve had this book for years. I don’t remember when I picked it up, or where. Possibly it came from the Armidale Rotary Club Book Sale, held annually at our small town’s racetrack. I know it’s a local book, because it is stamped ‘withdrawn 1991’ from the Uralla School Library. Uralla is 20 km away from Armidale, a small, pretty town, with a vibrant creative community.
I have never opened this book until today. That happens when you like books: you gather them almost without thinking, inspired by titles, covers, shapes, sizes, topics, themes, authors, connections that are almost meaningless to anyone but you. I know that I gathered this book because of its cover, and I knew that one day I’d open it, and see what I found.
A child, named B. Spohr, covered this book, some time prior to 1991. Perhaps it was a class project, in which students were asked to design covers for their favourite books. Perhaps B. Spohr had borrowed the book and damaged it, and had been told to replace the cover. Perhaps B. Spohr had loved the book, and grown up and moved away, and his or her parents had donated it to the school. The clear plastic cover, and library markings, indicate that B. Spohr did this work before the book was withdrawn. And the borrowing slip in the back of the book has a list of names, but not B. Spohr. So B. Spohr would not have borrowed this book, at least not recently. But whoever B. Spohr was, they did a thorough job of this cover, front, back, and spine.
The charm of the book is in the mystery, not in the finding out, so I will refrain from digging any further. But I have glanced through its pages, before lending it to a colleague who has decided to read it over the weekend, and have found it to be charming, with dynamic black-and-white illustrations. Here, for instance, is Mrs Wallaby-Jones, an unusual lady who is able to leap great distances, whom the children meet in Central Park.
Gillian and Ronald, or Gill and Ronnie, they gradually become, take this magic in their stride, as children often do in such books, and they enjoy what the novelist calls their ‘unusually pleasant or pleasantly unusual life,’ wondering occasionally if other people have similar magical moments in their lives. They hope they do, and so do I.
The 13th is Magic has a follow-up novel, The Summer is Magic, which I’m now going to look for. Apparently both books are quite rare, not having been reprinted, and some of its outdated attitudes, such as a chapter in which Indian-head pennies are turned into inarticulate half-naked Indians who only say ‘Howgh’ is likely off-putting to publishers. Nevertheless, they are exempla of a kind of episodic fantasy novel that shows a gentle magic pervading the world, a genre that is less common these days, having been supplanted by epic adventure stories. They remind me of novels like Eric Linklater’s The Pirates of the Deep Green Sea, or The Wind on the Moon (a childhood favourite), or some of Joan Aiken’s collections of short stories, such as the Armitage stories, which show episodes of magic happening to a family, but only on Mondays, or Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price and Centerburg Tales, in which tall tales and bizzarre happenings take place in a small Midwestern town.
As I haven’t read the novel fully, only flipped through it in between moving boxes, I don’t know if it contains anything Classical. I suspect it doesn’t, but if it does, I’ll write it up for the Our Mythical Childhood survey: it’s a curiousity, and a lovely find. But it doesn’t matter if nothing of that kind occurred. There are many types of magic, many types of fantasy, many traditions, and many books, and they all find their own readers and moments. I do hope that I’ll find more of B. Spohr’s artwork, too: the Rotary Book Sale starts in Armidale next week, and I’ll be poring through the stacks in search of more such unusual treasures.