September 28, 2006


Instead of Three Wishes: Magical Short Stories. By Megan Whalen Turner. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $5.99.

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen. By P.L. Travers. With drawings by Mary Shepard. Harcourt. $14.

     There’s magic, and then there’s magic.  That is, there is the old magic of fairy tales, the happily-ever-after sort of magic, and then there is the sort of magic that doesn’t quite do what you’d expect, or doesn’t quite happen where magic “ought” to happen.

     Instead of Three Wishes offers magic of the unexpected kind.  Originally published in 1995 and now available in paperback, Megan Whalen Turner’s book includes seven short stories that turn magic and the people who have traditional expectations of it neatly on their heads.  Each story has its charms, and each has its own style, from the serious to the humorous (Turner is especially good with a kind of wry humor).  Among the standouts is the title story, in which an elf prince keeps trying to give a gift of thanks to a human girl who isn’t interested in receiving one.  The tale is enlivened by the elf prince’s mother, who is so bored with the magical kingdom that she spends a lot of time studying human beings – by watching TV shows.  Turner brings in complication after complication, then neatly knits all the strands together at the end.  Equally good, and decidedly not amusing, is the touching “Factory,” which brings the worlds of humans and ghosts together very closely indeed – and suggests that, in some circumstances, the ghosts’ world is the better one.  Not all the stories are at such a high level: “The Nightmare,” in which a young bully gets his comeuppance, is plodding.  But most of the tales are clever and unusual enough to make reading them a magical experience.

     There was always something magical about P.L. Travers’ stories of Mary Poppins.  Harcourt’s excellent reissue of all six Poppins books has now been completed with Mary Poppins in the Kitchen.  Like Mary Poppins from A to Z, this is an instructive book rather than an amusing slice-of-Edwardian-family-life novel.  In fact, Mary Poppins in the Kitchen is subtitled, “A Cookery Book with a Story.”  The story has plenty of the usual Poppins charm, running from one Sunday to the next and focusing on the practically perfect nanny teaching all five of the Banks children (Jane, Michael, John, Barbara and Annabel) how to cook and bake.  After the brief tale, which takes up only 30 pages, Travers offers an A-to-Z “cookery book” of favorite Poppins recipes – beginning, not surprisingly, with a warning that children should “always let an adult switch on the stove, keep away from steaming kettles, and never use knives unless an adult is standing by.”  The recipes start with Apple Charlotte and end with Zodiac Cake, and have stood up well since this book was first published in 1975.  The cherry pie and date bread are standouts, and a few recipes, such as honey and bananas, can be prepared by even young children with minimal supervision.  Note, however, that some recipes are much more for British tastes than for American ones – such as Lancashire Hot Pot, which combines lamb neck or shoulder chops with lamb kidneys, potatoes and onions.  Mary Shepard’s illustrations are entirely charming, although purists will not be pleased that the black-and-white originals have been colored for this edition.  Still, a taste or two of the lemon soufflĂ© or nut loaf should calm them down.

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