Wizards and Magicians


Everyone (well, almost) loves Harry Potter – but Harry and friends are not the only wizards. There’s also Gandalf, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings; Schmendrick, the inept magician of Peter S. Beagle’s wonderful The Last Unicorn; Ged of Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea; Dallben of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain; and Merlin of the King Arthur tales. And many more.

See below for wizard stories, magic tricks, the science of magic, and all about master magician Harry Houdini.

Annette LeBlanc Cate’s The Magic Rabbit (Candlewick, 2007) is the picture-book story of the Amazing Ray, a magician, and his best friend, Bunny, who – at the word “Abracadabra!” – leaps from Ray’s top hat in a shower of glittering stars. When the two are separated, after a disastrous collision with a juggler and his dog, popcorn and a trail of golden stars help Bunny find his way home. Simple, but charming, for ages 3-6.
In Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 1979), Alan has been put in charge of Miss Hester’s badly behaved dog, Fritz, who – ignoring the “ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NO DOGS ALLOWED” sign – dashes into the eerie topiary garden of the dog-hating retired magician Abdul Gasazi (and is just possibly turned into a duck). For ages 5-10.
For an accompanying lesson plan, see the Teacher’s Guide to The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.
In Freddy the Magician (Overlook, 2011), in Walter R. Brooks’s wonderful Freddy the Pig series, the resourceful and hilarious Freddy – with the support of his animal friends at the Bean family farm – sets out to confound the swindling prestidigitator Senor Zingo by embarking on a career in magic. For ages 5-9. The Freddy the Pig website has more information on Freddy and friends.
The Boy, the hero of Susan Cooper’s The Magician’s Boy (Aladdin, 2006) is the unhappy employee of a magician who refuses to let him learn magic. Instead he polishes the magician’s wand, tends his garden, feeds his rabbits, and operates the puppets for his performances of the puppet play “Saint George and the Dragon.” When the Saint George puppet is lost, the magician sends the Boy to the fairy-tale Land of Story to find it – and after dealing with dangers, difficulties, Red Riding Hood’s wolf, and a dragon, he ultimately wins his heart’s desire. A chapter book for ages 7-11.
L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (available in dozens of editions) was originally published in 1900, featuring – along with Dorothy and companions, an awful Wicked Witch, and some creepy Winged Monkeys – a totally bogus, but endearing, Wizard, who reached Oz by accident (from Omaha) in a hot-air balloon. There are fourteen books by Baum in the original series, though the Oz opus now numbers in the dozens, continued by Ruth Plumly Thompson, John R. Neill, and others.
imgres For Oz enthusiasts, also see The Annotated Wizard of Oz (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, which includes a detailed history of the book and its author, hundreds of notes and explanations, and period photographs and illustrations.
Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone (Margaret K. McElderry, 2007), the first of a five-book series, is the story of Simon, Jane, and Barney Drew who, on a summer vacation at an old house in Cornwall, discover an ancient map. The map leads to a treasure associated with Arthurian legend, a key factor in the ancient battle between good and evil – and the children, with the help of their mysterious mentor Professor Merriman Lyon, must secure it before it’s nabbed by the sinister Mr. Withers and his sister. (By the end of the story, the kids also discover who Professor Lyon really is.) For ages 9-12. Subsequent titles in the series are Greenwitch, The Dark Is Rising, The Grey King, and Silver on the Tree.
T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (Philomel, 1993) is the stand-alone first section of White’s longer re-telling of the Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King. Appropriate for ages 10 and up, The Sword in the Stone is far deeper and more complex – and wittier – than the boiled-down Disney movie version. This is story of the boy Arthur – known as the Wart “because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name” – and his most unusual education by Merlin, with the help of hawks, owls, fish, ants, wild geese, and Robin Wood (yes, Wood) and his Merry Men. It ends as Wart pulls the sword from the stone and is revealed as King Arthur. The story continues in The Once and Future King with “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” “The Ill-Made Knight,” and “The Candle in the Wind,” generally recommended for ages 14 and up.
In Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant (Candlewick, 2011), ten-year-old orphan Peter Augustus Duchene visits a fortune-teller and learns that his long-lost sister Adele is still alive and that an elephant will lead him to her. That very evening the elephant arrives, crashing through the roof of the town opera house, inadvertently conjured up by a magician. It’s a somewhat dark tale, in which a collection of eccentric characters – among them a beggar, a soldier with a wooden foot, a crippled noblewoman (the elephant fell on her), and a carver of gargoyles – deal with issues of truth, hope, compassion, and ultimately, love. For ages 10-13.
The Magician’s Toolkit has “Six Magical Activities” to accompany The Magician’s Elephant, with printable materials.
Prospero, Shakespeare’s famous magician, rules the enchanted island on which the action takes place in The Tempest. If your kids are too young for the original play, see Lois Burdett’s The Tempest (Firefly Books, 1999) in the Shakespeare Can Be Fun series for ages 5-9. These books, illustrated with terrific children’s drawings, convey Shakespeare’s plots through a kid-friendly rhyming text. It’s not the Bard’s language, but readers will get the general idea.
Marcia Williams’s Tales from Shakespeare (Candlewick, 2004) for ages 6-10 has whimsically illustrated comic-strip versions of seven plays, among them The Tempest.
For ages 9-13, Tina Packer – Shakespearean expert and director of the Shakespeare & Company theatre group – provides prose versions of ten of the best-known plays, among them The Tempest, in Tales from Shakespeare (Scholastic, 2004). The book is beautifully designed – each play is introduced with a full-page painting – and the dialogue preserves some elements of Shakespearean language.
Charles and Mary Lamb’s classic Ten Tales from Shakespeare (Dover Publications, 2003) for ages 9-12 includes a prose re-telling of The Tempest.


Ron Burgess’s Kids Make Magic! (Williamson Publishing, 2003), subtitled “The Complete Guide to Becoming an Amazing Magician,” includes instructions for performing 35 different tricks (plus instructions for making your own magician’s top hat).  Recommended for ages 9-12. (Put on a show!)
Scientific Explorer’s Magic Science for Wizard’s Only kit includes all the materials for 11 different “magical activities,” variously involving colored smoke, color-changing potions, and slime. (About $16 from http://www.amazon.com.)
The Instructables website has illustrated instructions for making a cardboard magician-style top hat.
Make Wizard Crafts has instructions for making a pointed wizard-type hat and magic wand.
Seriously into magic? The Society of Young Magicians – the youth branch of the Society of American Magicians – publishes a monthly online magazine, offers email mentoring, and sponsors magic camps for aspiring magicians ages 7-17. An annual membership costs $20.


Jim Wiese’s Magic Science (John Wiley & Sons, 1998) is subtitled “50 Jaw-Dropping, Mind-Boggling, Head-Scratching Activities for Kids.” The activities are categorized under Matter, Reactions, Water, Air, Force and Energy, and Electricity and Magnetism, and each comes with clear illustrated instructions, a scientific explanation, and hints for performing before an audience. For example, kids can make a density tower and a magic seesaw, cause coins to disappear, and “magically” turn solutions different colors.
  Vicki Cobb’s Magic…Naturally!(Trophy Press, 1993) is out of print, but can still be tracked down (and it’s worth it) through libraries and used-book suppliers. The book is divided into five sections – “Mechanical Wizardry,” “Fluid Fascinations,” “Energy Enchantments,” “Chemical Conjuring,” and “Perceptual Puzzlements.”In each section, Cobb gives instructions for five different “tricks,” along with a scientific explanation of why each works. Kids learn about inertia, buoyancy, surface tension, electrostatics, chemical reactions, and more through such magical feats as “Intelligent Eggs,” “The Writhing Snake,” “The Blue Flashback,” and “The Possessed Pendulum.”  For ages 9-12.
Roger Highfield’s The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works (Penguin, 2002) discusses the science, history, and mythology behind the Harry Potter books. (Does the Sorting Hat operate on brain waves? Was John Dee, conjurer to Queen Elizabeth I, the inspiration for Albus Dumbledore? Is the magical entrance to Platform 9 ¾ a wormhole?) Fascinating and fun reading for older teenagers and adults.
Also for older teenagers and adults is Jim Steinmeyer’s Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear (Da Capo Press, 2004). The book is a fascinating history of stage magic from the mid-19th century to the 1920s, with a spectacular cast of characters. The title refers to a famous performance in 1918 when Harry Houdini made Jennie, an elephant, vanish from a circus wagon on the stage of the New York Hippodrome. For teenagers and adults.
Sleights of Mind by Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde (Henry Holt and Company, 2010) is subtitled “What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions.” The authors explain how magicians exploit the normal workings of our brains to fool us, and how our brain function can similarly play us false in daily life – via visual, cognitive, multisensory, and memory illusions, false expectations and assumptions, illusory correlations and superstitions, and more. Forewarned is forearmed, sort of. For older teenagers and adults.
From the California Science Center, Magic: The Science of Illusion has a brief history of magic, online magical illusions, activities, and resource lists.

NATIONAL MAGIC DAY is March 24 – that is, Harry Houdini’s birthday.

David A. Adler’s A Picture Book of Harry Houdini (Holiday House, 2010) – one of Adler’s extensive Picture Book Biography series – is a simple 32-page biography for ages 5-8, with rich color illustrations.
Kathleen Krull’s Houdini: World’s Greatest Mystery Man and Escape King (Walker & Company, 2007) is a dramatic picture-book biography for ages 6-10 that gives a sense of Houdini’s showmanship. (“Welcome! Enter! Prepare to be dazzled!” the book begins.) Biographical information is interspersed with framed descriptions of Houdini’s most famous tricks.
Sid Fleischman’s Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini (Greenwillow, 2006), a photo-illustrated biography for ages 9-14, tells how young Ehrich Weiss, a poor Jewish boy from Budapest, Hungary, managed to transform himself into one of the greatest magicians of all time, capable of making elephants disappear and escaping from high-security lock-ups at Scotland Yard. A fascinating addendum describes Fleishman’s own visits with Madame Houdini.
Brian Selznick’s The Houdini Box (Atheneum, 2008), a fiction book for ages 7-11, pairs the story of Houdini with that of ten-year-old Victor, who yearns to be a magician. After a chance encounter with Houdini, Victor visits his house – only to learn that the great man has just died. He has, however, left Victor a mysterious box – which just may hold the secret to Houdini’s famous escapes.
I, Houdini (Yearling, 2003) by Lynne Reid Banks is the tale of Houdini’s most unusual namesake: a brilliant hamster escape artist who – leaving chaos in his wake – eventually pulls off the ultimate escape and sets out to explore the great outdoors. A fun and funny read for ages 8-11.
Laurie Carlson’s Harry Houdini for Kids (Chicago Review Press, 2009) for ages 9 and up is an informational activity book on the life and times of the world’s most famous magician and escape artist, illustrated with wonderful period prints and photographs. The accompanying “21 Magic Tricks and Illusions” include learning to tie a magic knot, tackling the Magic Key trick, building a box kite, cracking a secret code, writing an invisible message, and whipping up a batch of ectoplasm. A helpful resource list includes supplementary reading suggestions and related web sites to explore.
From PBS’s American Experience series, Houdini has a film transcript, video clips, a gallery of Houdini posters, a timeline of Houdini’s life, games and activities, a resource list, and a teacher’s guide with discussion questions.
The Library of Congress American Memory project has a Houdini biography linked to historical images from the Library’s collection.
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