The Magician’s Secret – Zachary Hyman and Joe Bluhm, Tundra Books, 2018
Who is going to teach you about the value of imagination if not your grandparents? Then again, who is going to obsessively protect your physical and emotional well-being? The same people! The grandfather in Zachary Hyman and Joe Bluhm’s The Magician’s Secret shares a secret world with his grandson, Charlie, one where an hourglass is filled with sand from King Tut’s tomb and an old scarf flew around the neck of the Red Baron. Charlie’s father dismisses Grandpa’s thrilling accounts as “just tall tales…He just imagines all those things.” Whom should Charlie believe?
Hyman is best known as a star player for the Toronto Maples Leafs, but he has also authored several children’s books that emphasize the role of parents and grandparents in encouraging kids to have dreams. Illustrator Joe Bluhm, co-illustrator with William Joyce of the acclaimed The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, again brings his animation-influenced style to the essential role of imagination in enriching children’s lives. The distinctive edge to The Magician’s Secret is its admission that fantasy and lies are related and that children, and adults, may struggle with the tension between simply telling the truth and embroidering it with unbelievable but hopeful details.
On the book’s opening page Charlie’s mother and father cheerfully say goodbye as they go out for the evening, no doubt for some mundane event such as dinner in a restaurant. Charlie is staying with Grandpa, requiring the mother’s request in a resigned tone, “Dad, please make sure he get to bed early this time…No more hocus-pocus!” The action ensures in sepia-toned pictures and darker brown backgrounds, punctuated by occasional bright colors, emphasizing the exciting and old-fashioned nature of Grandpa’s improbable escapades. Depending on the age of the reader, as well as her predisposition towards fantasy or plan facts, she may follow along with tomb raiders, flying aces, and marauding dinosaurs, or stop to ask herself if this as not too good to be true. Charlie wants to believe; the sadness provoked by his own doubts is made clear in text and pictures.
Lying in bed with the covers over his mouth, a notebook and pencil on his nightstand, Charlie asks himself how his father could possibly look down on Grandpa. “I felt like I had lived every one of those adventures with Grandpa. How could they not be true?” The objects scattered around his room in semi-darkness; a World War I era toy airplane, toy cars and truck, and an exhausted looking stuffed animal propped against a football, show the importance of stories in Charlie’s life.
The book’s resolution may not satisfy some readers. As Charlie confronts a T-Rex, he listens to Grandpa’ voice shouting, “Well, don’t just stand there, kiddo!…Help me!” The book closes with a wordless scene of Charlie and his grandfather playing with a scaled–down and obviously harmless toy. Charlie has learned that imagination and reality can harmlessly coexist, and readers can breathe a sigh of relief. Yet the specter of a disapproving parent remains, as do the wildly exaggerated images that Bluhm gives us of emotional connection through story telling. Dad and Mom remain confined to one picture, Dad in goofy round glasses, and mom “crossing her arms against the cold.” Who cares about cold when you’re fighting the Red Baron? Kids and adults will both enjoy this ode to uninhibited creativity, although they may take away different messages about making dreams come true.