There is a time in a child’s life that is, for want of a better word, magical. That handful of years when they’re old enough to have their own ideas and motivations, but not yet so old that they’re too cool to hang out with their parents. It’s an age that Neil Patrick Harris has captured perfectly in The Magic Misfits, both in the adventures of his youthful protagonists and also in what the book offers young readers. It speaks to kids on their level, not what an adult think their level is. It’s earnest without being saccharine or preachy, and it’s a heck of a good time.
The book stars Carter, a young runaway who finds himself in the town of Mineral Wells. Carter’s pretty good at sleight-of-hand and soon falls in with a gaggle of kids who also enjoy different aspects of magic. Together, they take on B. B. Bosso, a carnival-running thief who’s come to town and is planning a heist of monumental proportions. It’s a fast-paced, freewheeling romp that swoops from one exciting scene to the next, peppering in memorable characters along the way. It’s a pace that doesn’t leave a lot of room for deep emotional development, but it’s ideal for holding the attention of young readers.
The Magic Misfits is also packed with secrets just waiting for eager readers to uncover. It brilliantly smashes the fourth wall, speaking directly to its audience in a conspiratorial way that makes them feel like part of the inner circle. This works not only when the book takes time between chapters to teach actual magic tricks that kids will be able to do with just a little prep, but also when it helps them with new vocabulary words like ‘vagabond’. The Magic Misfits never, ever talks down to its reader, creating an environment that fuels curiosity and encourages learning and experimentation. The magic tricks will take practice, it says, lots and lots of practice, but hey, have snacks in between. Take a nap. Then maybe practice some more, yeah?
You don’t have to be particularly interested in magic in order to enjoy The Magic Misfits; even a passing appreciation will do. Learning how certain tricks are done feeds into the book’s air of secrecy, or more precisely the fun that comes from knowing secrets. In addition to learning how certain illusions are done, readers will discover a few hidden codes that they can repurpose for their own clandestine message needs. This is all presented in a way that fosters independence, but also safety – the grownups in The Magic Misfits know what’s going on, but don’t hover over their children. The kids are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them, get into scrapes and then get themselves back out.
Perhaps The Magic Misfits’ greatest achievement is how effortlessly it espouses the idea that everyone is different, and that’s no big deal. One character, Ridley, is in a wheelchair, but her inability to walk is never used as a dramatic plot point or as a reason for her to pontificate about the cruel hand she’s been dealt. She does everything the other kids do, whether that’s going for a ride on the Ferris wheel, dancing, or fleeing Bosso’s goons. Another misfit, Leila, was adopted by her two dads, Mr. Vernon (a sly wink at the famous Canadian magician) and The Other Mr. Vernon, which is treated as no more unusual than young Theo’s (whose last name is Stein-Meyer, heh) preference to wear a tuxedo every day. Grownups tend to think kids need to be hit over the head with lessons in order to absorb them, but The Magic Misfits knows the truth: kids are pretty sharp. It places emphasis on the stuff that matters, like trust and friendship, and lets the other details inform the characters without defining them.
When you’re a kid in that handful of magical years before you think you know everything, there’s always one book that finds a permanent place in your heart. A worn and dog-eared copy goes with you as you move through your life, following you even into adulthood. For me, that book is The Phantom Tollbooth. I still have the copy I read as a child. The Magic Misfits has the potential to be that book for a whole new generation of curious minds as they begin to explore their own abilities. It is wholly without cynicism, offering marvelous storytelling and characters worth knowing. If you have a clever kid in your life, The Magic Misfits should be in their library.