Half Magic


Our Daily Correspondent

John William Waterhouse, The Magic Circle, 1886.

I like the arbitrary lists the Guardian often includes in its children’s book section: best villains in children’s books, best dogs, best mothers. As with all lists, these are made to be debated, and it’s always fun to see what the compiler chooses. But today’s list made me mad. Simply put, it was incomplete. “Best cauldrons in children’s books” did not include the cauldron from Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth.

I’m sure the cauldrons from The Worst Witch and Wyrd Sisters are great. I know the cauldrons found in Lloyd Alexander and J. K. Rowling are high quality. And certainly no one’s denying that Macbeth’s cauldron game is strong. (Even if it’s a stretch to call it a children’s book.) One can justify the exclusion of The Black Cauldron from this list, and, even though I’d have included Eleanor Estes’s The Witch Family, I understand that this is a matter of opinion. But Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth is nothing less than a glaring omission.

If you’re a fan of E. L. Konigsburg, you probably know her first book. It came out the same year—1967—as From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s the story of a loner, the titular Elizabeth, who falls under the sway of another girl, Jennifer, who claims to be a witch and takes Elizabeth on as her apprentice. Elizabeth balks at her mentor’s bossiness, but puts up with it: “Before I’d got Jennifer,” she says, “I’d had no one.” Jennifer declares that the pair will make a flying potion as a test for Elizabeth. But the cauldron actually appears earlier in the story, when the kids are asked to bring in kitchen props for a school play. 

Jennifer caused a small sensation. She brought in a huge black three-legged pot. It would hold about twenty quarts of water. A little kid could swim in it almost. Jennifer didn’t have to write her name on that pot to identify it. No one else had ever seen anything else like it except in a museum. I happened to know that it was the pot we were going to cook our flying ointment in.

Their spell-casting is based, in part, on that of Macbeth’s Weird Sisters. “Every modern witch ought to read Macbeth,” Jennifer says at one point. “Those witches cooked up a wonderful brew. Not flying ointment brew. Trouble brew. And the first ingredient was a toad.”

But in the course of their preparations, Elizabeth makes a pet of the toad, and when it comes time to sacrifice him to the flying ointment, she finds she can’t throw him into the cauldron. She defies Jennifer and the two fight bitterly.

In an interview, the author claimed that she was inspired by her own family’s move and the isolation her daughter found in their new apartment building. But most of all, she said, she drew on her students at a Florida girls’ school, who were “softly comfortable on the outside and solidly uncomfortable on the inside.” Konigsburg’s books often deal with loneliness and the relationships it forces; this is particularly true in the case of Jennifer and 1986’s Up From Jericho Tel, which is, incidentally, one of the weirdest kids’ books ever written, not just in its treatment of issues of class and race, but also in its look at the very real power dynamics that exist among children. 

I’m not going to write a full essay about the significance of the cauldron in Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth—though lord knows I hung papers on less, back in the day—but I would argue that it rates a mention. True, it’s not literally magical: that’s the point. But like so much in the book, and in a lot of good children’s lit, its power lies in possibility, in the thought that the everyday might be invested with magic, and that a strong enough personality might as well be magical. 

But that wouldn’t all fit in the Guardian’s comments section.