“The best kind of book,” said Barnaby, “is a magic book.”
“Naturally,” said John.
There was a silence, as they all thought about this and how true it was.
“The best kind of magic book,” said Barnaby, leaning back against the edge of the long, low library table and surveying the crowded bookshelves, only seeming somehow to look beyond them and beyond everything else, too, the way he so often did, “is when it’s about ordinary people like us, and then something happens and it’s magic.”
“Like when you find a nickel, except it isn’t a nickel—it’s a half-magic talisman,” said Susan.
“Or you’re playing in the front yard and somebody asks is this the road to Butterfield,” said Abbie.
“Only it isn’t at all—it’s the road to Oz!” shrilled Fredericka, jigging up and down excitedly, for she had read the book in which this happens.
The lady sitting at the far end of the table sighed and looked up, putting her hand to her head as if it ached. “Please,” she said. “Can’t we have quiet?”
“Now, now!” Miss Dowitcher, the librarian, wagged a finger in merry reproof as she skimmed past. “Now, now. This is a children’s room, you know. It’s for the children to enjoy.”
The lady sighed again, closed the book she was reading, and opened another. Abbie tried to catch her eye and look sympathetic, but the lady would not meet her gaze.
Abbie knew the lady well, by sight. She was called Miss Prang, Miss Eulalie Smythe Prang, and she spent most of her days in the children’s room at the library, looking in the different books and taking things out. When she had taken enough out, she put it together into a new book. There were a lot of her books on the library’s shelves already, but they were not the kind of magic books Barnaby and John and Susan and Abbie and Fredericka had in mind. Mostly they were about dear little fairies who lived in buttercups.
Abbie sometimes thought that if Miss Prang would listen when she heard children talking, instead of sighing and putting her hand to her head, it might do her books a lot of good. For instance, she ought to be listening to Barnaby right now.
“The best kind of magic book,” Barnaby was saying, “is the kind where the magic has rules. And you have to deal with it and thwart it before it thwarts you. Only sometimes you forget and get thwarted.”
Everybody began talking at the same time, and the name of E. Nesbit was heard in more than one voice, for she was the five children’s favorite author and no wonder (though Fredericka liked the Oz books nearly as well).
“Why couldn’t she have lived forever?” said Abbie, taking that best of all Nesbit books, The Enchanted Castle, down from the shelf and looking at it with loving eyes. “We’ve read all of hers, and nobody seems to do books like that anymore.”
“If you could have a brand-new magic book, specially made for you,” said John, “what would you choose?”
“One about a lot of children,” said Abbie.
“One about five children just like us,” said Fredericka.
“And they’re walking home from somewhere and the magic starts suddenly before they know it,” said Susan.
“And they have to learn its rules and tame it and make the most of it,” said Barnaby.
At the far end of the table Miss Prang muttered to herself, pushed the books about in front of her, and at last half rose to her feet, gazing imploringly in the direction of the librarian’s desk.
Miss Dowitcher came skimming across the room again. “I think, then, children, if you’re ready to go?” she murmured apologetically. “Perhaps it would be best. Have you found enough books to take?”
Of course they had not, for who has ever found enough books?
But they scrabbled together the ones they had chosen and lined up at the desk to have the date stamped in them. It was then that Susan looked back and saw the book sitting all by itself at one end of the bottom shelf.
It was a red book, smallish but plump, comfortable and shabby. There had once been gilt letters on the back, but these had rubbed away, and Susan couldn’t read the name of what it was. Still, it looked odd enough to be interesting and worn enough to have been enjoyed by countless generations. On a sudden impulse she added it to the pile in her arms and took her place at the end of the line.
She thought Miss Dowitcher looked at her a bit strangely when she saw the red book, but “That’s a seven-day book” was all she said. Susan was surprised. Usually the books that had to be returned in seven days were the newest ones, and new was the last thing she would have thought this book to be.
“Oh, we’ll be through with it before that,” she said.
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” remarked Miss Dowitcher, in rather a peculiar voice Susan thought. But she stamped the book with a will, and a minute later Susan and the others emerged from the library into the bright, new-washed June morning.
If you had seen the five children coming down the library steps that day, you would have thought they belonged to two families, and this was true.
John and Susan were tall and light-haired and calm. Barnaby and Abbie and Fredericka were little and quick and dark.
“You two look just the way you are,” Barnaby had said one day, back when the two families had first met. “You look worthy and dependable. You look like people who would be president and vice president of the class.”
“Well,” admitted Susan apologetically, “we usually are.”
She and John were president and vice president of the fifth grade this year. They were in the same class, not because they were twins (which they weren’t) but because John had been very sick once and missed a whole year of school. But that was long ago.
Now John was big and strong and played quarterback on the school football team. Susan was captain of girls’ soccer, and they were both rather good at chess. In schoolwork their marks generally averaged B, or at least B minus. Almost everybody liked them, even teachers, and their days were pleasant if uneventful.
Or at least that was the way things had always been up till last summer.