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The Abracadabra Kid by Sid Fleischman

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 1996)


Due to the winter glut of new books I was forced to make only a brief mention of this book in the December column. Sid Fleischman will be known to many magicians for his well-received 1993 book, The Charlatan's Handbook, the most recent of six works on magic for magicians (the rest were produced between 1939 and 1947), along with two for the public. He will no doubt be known to many other readers for his ten mystery and suspense novels for adults, and his 32 works for young people, including the popular McBroom series. And there may even be a few film buffs out there who knew that Mr. Fleischman was for a time a screenwriter who worked with the likes of William Wellman and a young Sam Peckinpah.

Thus, Mr. Fleischman's fans are legion, and all will want to read this delightful autobiography, with something to appeal to every constituency of the author's wide- ranging audience. While the book is more particularly geared to the aforementioned "young people's" audience, don't let that put you off if you have a few too many years on you to qualify. Mr. Fleischman's adventures as a young magician, on the road to becoming a writer, will be of interest and amusement to all, especially to any with an interest in either pursuit. He introduces the tale on page two: "I became a writer quite by accident. In school I was being properly formatted to become a productive member of society, but I decided to become a magician instead." I like this guy!

And no wonder, for we share a profound love for magic, magic books, and language. As he describes the birth of his obsession with magic texts, circa junior high school, he captures the joy of the moment, and as well, sees the value in it looking back. Considering his immersion in Hoffman and Maskelyne and Devant, to the exclusion of much of his more "proper" school reading along with the casual "junk" reading that children typically engage in, he now sees that, in addition to learning tricks, "Without realizing it, I was also absorbing a sense of language and style from these Victorian masters—I enjoy reading them still—for they are to the literature of magic what Macauley is to the writing of history."

The author has a playful sense of humor, which he is just as willing to turn on himself as toward any other target. Accompanying a strip of photographs of his younger sister is this bit of wry commentary on the accuracy of first-person reportage: "My younger sister, Honey, age six, (pictured) at a time when I gave her a grass skirt for her birthday. Given the trickeries of memory, I recall that she was embarrassed, hated the garment on sight, and refused to put it on. She recalls that she loved it and that she and her friends played with it for years. The other memories in these pages are absolutely true. I think." Mr. Fleischman has many lessons to offer his readers, but generally with this kind of subtlety, and never as sermon or scolding.

There is also much good advice about the craft of writing to be found in these pages, but again, Mr. Fleischman never harangues the reader. In fact, he assures us that "...in creative work there is never any right or wrong way. There is only the way that suits you best." Nevertheless, there is much good practical guidance here, cogently offered, for aspiring writers of, I daresay, any age. (Okay, I even learned a thing or two myself.) And he emphasizes that there is no substitute—in magic or in writing—for the doing of a thing, and repetitively at that "... the only secret to writing is that there are no secrets. But if there were one, it would be revealed in a single word: practice. Nothing is wasted but the paper."

While I have nothing to add to that sage advice, I must note that one of the most consistently entertaining elements of the book is that each chapter begins with an epigram excerpted from a lifetime of fan mail from young readers. All of these will make you smile, some will make you think, a few will touch your heart, and a couple may cause you to laugh aloud. "Sorry I can't talk long, but I'm planning to write to the President" and "Please don't come back to my school. I hate to write letters" are just the kind of thing to remind any writer with even a modicum of irony about his proper place in the universe. Then there is this: "When did you start writing? When are you going to stop?" The Abracadabra Kid answers the first question; let's hope the answer to the second is, "Not any time soon."

6" X 9" hardcover with embossed dustjacket; 198 pages; 39 illustrations, mostly photographs; 1996; Publisher: Greenwillow Books