Epic versus episodic…

I’m so thankful to Charlotte, for this post!

I have been trying to find other Edward Eager read-alikes– books where ordinary children find magic, and struggle to learn its rules and bend the will of the magic to their own, and get into many strange predicaments in the process. In this sort of book, there is no struggle between good and evil, no great epic quest that provides the plot. Instead, there are episodes of magic meeting real life, often leading to chaos that is always eventually resolved.

Until reading her blog this morning, I hadn’t thought to put the distinction into such terms, but she’s dead-on. This isn’t a question of literary versus commercial, old versus new, or high-fantasy versus low. This is a question of EPIC VERSUS EPISODIC.

Harry Potter, as much as he follows the Nesbit–> Eager trend of humorous, well-written magic books about “regular” kids who find magic… isn’t the same kind of book. Harry is fighting for his life. He’s fighting for his world. He is, in a way, more like Susan Cooper’s protagonists, or maybe L’Engle’s.

And Charlotte is having trouble making a Common Magic (my term) reading list. So I wonder if you people can help me help Charlotte. I want to make a list of EPISODIC MAGIC books. Books in which kids encounter magic sildalis manufacturer, and have discreet adventures, and learn from them… but the fate of the universe doesn’t having in the balance. We’re looking for books without the BIG JOURNEY…


For my part I can think of lots of older books that sort of fit the bill, in different ways. Betty McDonald’s wonderful Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books, and Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth, and others that don’t quite use the format I’m talking about. Milo isn’t really a “regular” kid, and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle doesn’t exactly live in our world. But at least neither has an epic sweep. Dahl is almost episodic, but he’s sort of in a weird category of his own.

Does Indian in the Cupboard count? Not quite. What about There’s the obvious other Eager-homage book, Magic by the Book, which I have very strong opinions about. How about Ellen Potter’s amazing Olivia Kidney books. Not quite as episodic, but dang close… and the tone is the same sort of tone.

MARY NORTON! Her Magic Bed Kob was totally such a book, and I loved it as a kid. Do people still read that one?

Really, please help us make a list! What’s your very favorite episodic magic book for middle graders?

30 Responses to “Epic versus episodic…”

  1. J. L. Bell Says:

    Most of Nesbit’s children’s books were episodic because she wrote those stories for The Strand magazine. Each issue contained a single episode, though they were often linked by characters and overall situation. Only after the serial publication was done did the book appear.

    Eager and other Nesbit acolytes seem to have picked up that storytelling rhythm even though their work appeared first in book form.

  2. laurel Says:

    I cannot *believe* I never put that together. How interesting…

  3. Charlotte Says:


    And yes, I was thinking Mary Norton myself just this morning. I am going to try Bedknob and Broomstick on my boys, on our upcoming train trip to DC, and refresh my memory of it….

  4. christy Says:

    How about the Mary Poppins books? I thought of them before I saw you mention the Mary Norton, even though I do associate the two on account of the Disney movie versions.

  5. laurel Says:

    PL Travers!!! Oh, yes…. absolutely!

    Also someone has suggested the Magic Treehouse books.

    Narnia? How do people feel about Narnia? Tone is closer, but I feel they’re more in the vein of real fantasy…

    And then there are writers like Zilpha Keatly Snyder and Lois Duncan, who are related. But have more of a mysterious feel.

  6. V.V. Ganeshananthan Says:

    Would Pippi Longstocking maybe count, Laurel?

  7. laurel Says:

    I think so! Pippi isn’t magical, but the episodic structure is absolutely the same, and with all the south seas travel and her living alone, there’s a suspension of disbelief. I think I’d put Pippi with Mrs. Piggle Wiggle.

  8. Jennifer Says:

    L. M. Boston’s Green Knowe books, Diana Wynne Jones’ The Ogre Downstairs, Several of Jane Louise Curry’s books, including Mindy’s Miniatures and The Lost Farm and Parsley Sage Rosemary and Time, and Joan Aiken’s Armitage Family stories (collected recently in The Serial Garden). You could also include books I think of as “magic science” like Scott Corbett’s Trick series. Oh, and most of Ruth Chew’s books could be called “common magic” stories.

  9. laurel Says:

    Aiken! I love Aiken.

    There are probably a lot of less popular mid century books that fall into the same category, but fell out of print. I can’t imagine that Eager’s success, and Dahl’s, didn’t springboard.

    Someone should ask this of the child_lit listserv.

  10. laurel Says:

    And a Facebook friend (I have 2 separate conversations running) suggested John Bellairs, who I lump (in my head, though I might be wrong) more with Aiken. Like, there’s a plot to be figgered out… but still…

  11. laurel Says:

    And from a Twitter friend, Anne Mazer’s Sister Magic, and Holly Black’s Spiderwick Chronicles.

    I can’t speak for all of these. I’m more just compiling at this point.

    Eva Ibbotson?

  12. Wendy Says:

    How about Jane Langton? The Diamond in the Window is definitely real-life-meets-magic, and while it’s much more sophisticated than Eager and there’s more good-vs.-evil, I think you could put it here. It’s also very episodic. The other books in the series too, I suppose. I give The Diamond in the Window my highest recommendation.

    Time at the Top (and sequel All in Good Time) by Edward Ormondroyd might be another.

  13. Suzanne Says:

    Is Lemony Snicket’s too far off?

  14. Kate Coombs Says:

    I’m not sure I would have thought of this if I hadn’t seen the title of her workshop for the upcoming SCBWI Conference, but Ingrid Law’s much-acclaimed book Savvy qualifies in a certain sense, though it’s not episodic. It’s more of a road trip and Man (or Girl) vs. Father’s Life-threatening Condition, whichever conflict that might be. Law’s workshop title: “Major Villains Need Not Apply: Writing Fantasy Without an Archenemy.”

  15. laurel Says:

    Good point, Kate! And I wonder how you feel about this yourself, as a writer. Your books, like my own Scratchy Moutnains, live in some kind of half-world. Tone is more like the books we’re talking about, but they dwell in the kind of fairy tale land and with a more “adventure” arc than Eager.

    I LOVED the Diamond in the Window. Had totally forgotten it!!!

  16. Nymeth Says:

    I see she’s already been mentioned, but I think that description applies to a lot of Diana Wynne Jones’ work. Black Maria and Fire & Hemlock in particular come to mind. Maybe also Skellig by David Almond, and Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.

  17. ej christy Says:

    I read Mallory Loehr’s “Magic Elements Books” to my daughter, and she loved them. Read them to herself when she was older. The stories relate to mythological gods and goddesses. The “Avalon” books by Rachel Roberts. I think the series was broken into two different “threads.” Three girls discover that together they have magical powers. Cornelia Funke? Maybe the worlds in those books are a little too magical. Bruce Coville? We found some of his “ghost” books in the library and loved them. “Ghost in the Big Brass Bed,” “Ghost in the Third Row…”

    Hope these are helpful.

  18. Charlie Butler Says:

    For episodic Diana Wynne Jones, I think a better choice might be *The Ogre Downstairs*, perhaps her most Nesbitish.

    There’s also the strangely neglected Nina Beachcroft, some of whose books would also qualify (e.g. *The Wishing People*, *Well Met by Witchlight*). Some of Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe books, too.

  19. J. L. Bell Says:

    I’m going to question the premise of “epic versus episodic.” Our great epics are episodic. Each of Odysseus’s island visits or Dante’s interactions with someone in the afterlife is an episode, for example. What makes those works “epic” is their sprawling scale: hefty length, huge casts of characters, action on a large stage, often over years.

  20. Jenny Schwartzberg Says:

    This discussion made me remember Elisabeth Beresford’s magic books. This site has a bibliography for her. Her books are definitely common magic: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/b/elizabeth-beresford/ Also, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, Ruth Plumly Thompson and others would fall into this category. I’ll dig about for more…

  21. Heidi Estrin Says:

    How about Linnets and Valerians?

  22. Laurel Snyder Says:

    Fair enough. I’ve pondered this, and I think you’re right. But I think the issue isn’t so much that the books I’m calling “episodic” don’t differ from the books I’m calling “epic”. Rather that the casual use of the word epic neglects much of the true definition.

    The Odyssey *is* both epic and episodic. But many books today to which “epic” gets applied don’t follow the original definition.

    Sort of like the way we abuse the term “tragic” today.

    So maybe we need a better term to indicate a kind of HUGE arc, a big climax, the universe at stake. “Episodic” versus “???”

    Help me out!

  23. J. L. Bell Says:

    I see two different distinctions here. One is between books with a sustained, unified conflict and resolution and books that consist of a series of linked but largely independent events. In the former, everything relates to the main plot; in extreme examples of the latter, pieces could be taken out or rearranged without affecting the whole. I wish I could come up with an alliterative pairing, but for now I have the distinction of unified and episodic.

    The other is between books that are based on a worldview of Good v. Evil and/or involve the Fate of the World and books that take place on a smaller, often personal or domestic scale. I’d like to call that distinction as between Manichean and mundane, except not enough people know what “Manichean” means (seeing the universe in dualistic terms, good versus evil).

    Those two axes create four quadrants: unified and Manichean (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), episodic and Manichean (Divine Comedy), unified and mundane (James and the Giant Peach), episodic and mundane (Half Magic).

  24. GeraniumCat Says:

    I came over here from Charlotte’s blog, where I’d mentioned Nesbit and Boston, and also Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel, which I think sort of fits the category – certainly the tone is right; maybe also Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. The oldest examples I can think of are Kingsley’s The Water Babies and McDonald’s At The Back of the North Wind, but Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies are definitely episodic, as is The Midnight Folk (Masefield). Looking back through my list of 101 children’s books (on my blog)I hesitated over Dr Doolittle – again, I think the tone is right, but one of the reasons why I liked the Narnia Chronicles so much was that it *felt* domestic even if the universe *was* at stake. Oh, I see Laurel has already mentioned them…

  25. laurel Says:

    Oh, this is very good, very useful. I like the quadrants!!!!

    I wonder how many episodic and Manichean books we could find that are new….

  26. J. L. Bell Says:

    For new episodic and Manichean fantasy stories, the place to look is in serial fiction: comic books and TV shows!

  27. R.J. Anderson Says:

    Aren’t the SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS books episodic, really?

  28. Kate Coombs Says:

    I love the four quadrants, also learning the word Manichean! Anyway, I am reminded of definitions of plot I’ve read which exclude or at least pooh-pooh the “string of events” approach to writing fiction, suggesting that this type of writing does not qualify as a plot because it lacks an overall story arc and therefore lacks purposefulness.

    Is an episodic book simply a string of events? I think the key is to look for a subtler type of arc in these cases. This is one reason it’s such a good idea to separate the episodic issue from the question of good vs. evil and a book’s central conflict. (Thanks, J.L. Bell!)

    Of course, not every story arc is highly dramatic. I should say, not every story arc NEEDS to be highly dramatic. I’m thinking of a book by Hilary McKay, The Exiles. It’s not as good as her more recent books about the Casson family (which I adore), but it’s an example of what I’m talking about: four sisters go to spend the summer with their grandmother, and the story is episodic in the sense that it gives us a series of escapades; however, there’s a quieter overall arc having to do with the girls’ relationship with their grandmother.

    On a related note, weren’t Charles Dickens’ books written/published episodically? I’m also remembering Richard Peck’s books, A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago, as examples of episodic fiction. Of course, all stories are episodic to some extent, scene following scene following scene, so I guess we’re really talking about whether the scenes/episodes drive (or derive from) one another. There’s a range of possible levels of connectedness, as Bell also indicated!

  29. Zalmond Says:

    I see that you are from the magical land of Baltimore, MD! Knight’s Castle was the first Eager book I found and I will never forget it. It must have been a fascinating place to grow up, the “sky flaming with the orange of many steel forges, while in the black iron foundries below 859,100 dark figures labored, all wearing straw hats.” One day I may visit, only because I know that somewhere, around some corner, I may still find Sherwood Forest.

    It’s wonderful to simply see the names of all these books that I loved, still love, so much. I’m always a bit surprised that other people have read these books, I still have the feeling that these were my own private worlds. Nesbit, Corbett, Norton, so many of my favorites are mentioned here already. One book that comes to mind that I haven’t seen mentioned is “The 13th is Magic,” by Joan Howard (1950). It doesn’t completely have the “common magic” feeling of many of the others, it’s a bit dream-like, but it still sits on my shelf right next to all the others. If I think of any others I’ll write.

  30. Gemini Says:

    I had been thinking about the Harry Potter vs. magic books I loved to read as a child as well! Nina Beachcroft (Wishing People, Cold Christmas), Diana Wynne Jones books, Roald Dahl, Alan Davidson’s The Bewitching of Alison Allbright which I just reread with my daughter isn’t magic at all but the height of fantasy. And so many ghost stories that I don’t even remember. E. Nesbitt’s books, and Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom. In all of these books, the magic was commonplace, an extension of life, of my own imagination, and what I remembered and took away from these were the characters and their emotions, which is probably what these “bigger” books take away from. This current fascination with epic fantasies, good vs. evil, somehow don’t extend the reader’s own creativity and emotions, which is why, even though this category includes favorites like C.S.Lewis’s Narnia books, so many people who read them (or worse, watch the movies!) relate to the magic and fantasy in these books so completely differently. I wonder how these two categories affect us differently? For myself, finding these books again with my daughter made me feel really good that I do like fantasy and magic after all, and that these are such important parts of our imaginations, books that you can read and reread again right away.

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