Sunday, October 8, 2017

Joan Howard's The 13th is Magic! (Book Review)

Author: Joan Howard
Illustrator: Adrienne Adams
Publication: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., Hardcover, 1950
Genre: Juvenile Fantasy
Description: New York is a magic city where almost everything can happen - especially if you live on the 13th floor of an apartment building on Central Park West.  Now of course, as most people are superstitious there is no real 13th floor in hotels or apartment houses, and the one where Ronnie and Gillian live, although it is right about the 12th, is called the 14th.  It is not until the day they find the black cat Merlin that they discover the magical 13th floor where the hall wallpaper is a pattern of bats, owns and broomsticks, with borders made of old charms and incantations. In the various apartments on this floor live a remarkable group of characters that the children meet and then see more of in the adventures that follow on the 13th day of every month.

Like all New York children, Ronnie and Gillian play in Central Park, ride on the Staten Island ferry, and visit the fascinating shops near Broadway.  But not all children are lucky enough to have a little box of daylight savings time to open in a fog, and not all New York children can whistle up a snowstorm that falls only on Central Park while the rest of the city is bathed in dazzling sunlight, or ride with the Comet cleaners through the sky.

Their mother could not understand why such extraordinary things happened only to the Saunders children, and not to other families.

“Perhaps they do, my dear,” their father told her.  “Perhaps they do and the other people just aren’t telling.”

Audience: The dust jacket (from which the above description comes) says ages 6-10 but I love this book nearly as much as an adult as I did when I checked it out frequently from my elementary school library!

My Impressions:  As a little girl growing up in Boston, my knowledge of New York came from this book and The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, and From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I never dreamed I would one day live there myself. From my home in the suburbs, I was intrigued by apartment living, a talking cat adopting two children, and the mysterious missing 13th floors.  Surprisingly, this reread revealed that Ronnie and Gillian’s apartment was on Central Park West which was actually one of my addresses (although my building was physically on West 97th, this is what is called a vanity address) although in my mind I had pictured their building on the Upper East Side.   I loved the adventures that took place on the 13th of each month and the quirky characters, especially Mr. Weatherbee, formerly of the Weather Bureau, and Mrs. Wallaby-Jones, whose tail reveals she is a kangaroo!  Of course, I especially liked the fact that a cat could bring magic to an ordinary family.  I might not live in a magic apartment building but I certainly had a cat!
As an adult, I have several times recommended this book for reprint to editors seeking hidden gems of the past.  It is very hard for the book's diehard fans to find an affordable copy - AbeBooks currently has one at $665!.   Adrienne Adams, the talented illustrator, also has admirers. Unfortunately, I am afraid a chapter involving the children’s Indian head pennies all turning into half-naked Indians who say, “Howgh!” would disqualify this book from reprint, which is a shame as it is otherwise very charming.  It was quite popular in its day, with at least 9 printings.  I wish that Joan Howard aka Patricia Gordon aka Patricia Prud'Hommeaux were still alive so she could tweak that chapter to make it acceptable to a 21st century audience. I did find some grandchildren. Maybe I will make another attempt.

By the way, "fascinating shops near Broadway"? Hardly. That is not the only dated reference in this book but the charm of the characters and setting outweigh these flaws.
Mrs. Wallaby-Jones joined the children in Central Park
Source: The John Ward School copy is long gone (I hope it is being cherished somewhere and was not tossed) but I was lucky enough to get the book from Eastern Connecticut State College via InterLibrary Loan.  I once read the sequel, The Summer is Magic, which is less known but nearly as hard to obtain.

Images copyright to Adrienne Adams/Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, Co.

1 comment:

Charlotte said...

I enjoyed the book very much (thank you!), with the exception of the Indian chapter. Such a pity.