“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.
But then last summer Barnaby moved into the house across the road and turned out to be in their room in school, and after that things were changed.
Barnaby was a person with ideas.
“I don’t see what you see in that little runt,” big Pete Schroeder said to John at football practice one day back in the fall, when Barnaby was still the new boy in Miss Dugdale’s room. “I don’t see what you want to go round with him all the time for.”
“It’s like this,” John told him. “He has ideas. And he’s my best friend. So lay off.”
Big Pete Schroeder laid off. Because John’s word was law in five-one-A. The only one who could tell John what to do was Barnaby. Barnaby had ideas.
The ideas Barnaby had weren’t always good ones, but he had them one after another, all day long. And some of them were exciting.
He believed in magic, for one thing, or said he did. He believed that anything could happen, any minute, and that sometimes you could make things happen, if you tried hard enough. And he could think up wonderful games and ways to make the most boring things seem like fun.
Nobody would ever have taken Barnaby for the president of anything. He was not dignified enough. And everybody did not like him as much as John and Susan did. He was stubborn and hot-tempered and impatient, and when he disagreed with people, he started arguments. Miss Dugdale said the trouble with Barnaby was he was opinionated.
Susan sometimes tried to reason with Barnaby for his own good. And other times John had to step in and defend him when he got into fights with boys who were bigger than he was.
That was one thing about Barnaby, even his enemies agreed. He had spunk. He wasn’t afraid of anybody. But he wasn’t really at his best with his fists. He was more of a brain.
It was typical of him, Susan and John felt, to have an interesting and unusual name and to have sisters with interesting names, too, Abigail and Fredericka.
“Our names sound just like us,” Susan complained one day after Barnaby had come into their lives.
“Good old Susan and John,” agreed John.
Barnaby liked his own name. He was proud of its differentness and would never answer to “Barney” or any other nickname. And Fredericka was just the same. People took their lives in their hands who dared to call her “Freddy.” Fredericka was the baby of the family and even fiercer-tempered than Barnaby.
But everybody called Abigail Abbie.
Abbie was that kind of person, just jolly and friendly, with no temper at all. Barnaby always said Abbie must be a throwback, only he couldn’t decide what she was a throwback to. She wasn’t a bit like the rest of the family.
“That’s ’cause she’s the middle one,” said Barnaby’s father, overhearing this one afternoon. “Middle ones are mild. Only don’t count on it. She may surprise you someday.” He ruffled Abbie’s hair, and Abbie gave him a loving look.
Barnaby and Abbie and Fredericka’s father was a nice man. He was a singer on television, but not a famous one yet. Mostly you saw him as one of a quartet singing that his beer was Finegold, the dry beer, or wanting someone to be sociable and have a Poopsi.
He was little and quick and dark like Barnaby, and when he was at home playing croquet or badminton with the kids, he looked more like their brother than their father. But he wasn’t home so very often, because with three children to support, he had to go in to New York at all kinds of hours on all kinds of different singing jobs.
Barnaby’s mother used to be a dancer, but now she went whizzing around all day in her old car, trying to sell other people houses, to help make ends meet and keep up their payments on their own house. Their house was new and little, just large enough to hold a family of five.
Susan and John’s house across the road was big and old. Sometimes Susan thought it was too big for just her and John and Grannie.
Susan and John’s parents had died a long time ago, the same year John was so sick. After that Grannie came to stay with them, but whether she was taking care of them or they were taking care of her was never quite clear. Susan and John often felt as if Grannie were the child and they were the grown-ups. Grannie was like that.
She was little and frail and older than most grandmothers and yet almost too energetic. And she was so unexpected in what she might do and often did, such as climbing cherry trees or shoveling snow off the walk, that Susan and John hated to leave her alone in the house any more than they had to. Sometimes one of them would miss a party sooner than have both of them go out for a whole evening at the same time.
Not that Grannie would have climbed trees or shoveled snow in the dark of night, but she would probably think of something just as dangerous and unsuitable.
So altogether it was wonderful for Susan and John when Barnaby moved into the little new house and they had a friend right at home, almost in the front yard.
And then to have the friend turn out to be a person with ideas was almost too good to be true.
One of the ideas Barnaby had was that Susan and John should get acquainted with the public library. Up till then John hardly read anything at all, outside of school. And Susan mostly read about Sue Barton, student nurse.
But books were Barnaby’s life blood, maybe because he was an author himself. He had a book of his own in his mind, and some of it down on paper, but he would never talk about it or tell the others what it was.
Except that he had told a little of it to Abbie, for she was a poet, or hoped to be, and would understand.
Most of the time when Barnaby wasn’t having ideas or thinking about his own book, he was reading other people’s. He read one a day, at least, and was anxious that his friends should do the same. It was Barnaby who had decided that Saturday was library day.
Each Saturday morning, as soon as breakfast was over, the five children would ride along with Barnaby’s mother on her way to the office (and with Barnaby’s father, too, if he were catching the train for an early rehearsal) and get off at the library corner.
Later, after an hour or two of rummaging and browsing (and a lot of advice from Barnaby), they would come down the library steps and walk along the village street that turned into the curving country road home, reading as they went. And Barnaby had made a game of that, too. Each one got to read part of his most interesting-looking book out loud, and then the others were free to criticize.
This particular June morning started out no differently from the others. As the five children wandered along Cherry Street, Barnaby opened his top book hopefully and began chapter one. But after only a paragraph or two he leafed over to the back, glanced at the last pages, and shut the cover with a disgusted bang.
“I thought so,” he said. “Of all the gyps! It calls itself The Magic Door, but there’s not a speck of real magic in it anywhere! It’s just about this boy that learns to get along with these other people by being friendly and stuff. And the magic door’s just the door of good fellowship or something. Man, do I despise a book like that!”
And the others could not have agreed with him more. Usually the five children could spot a book like that a mile off, though. It wasn’t very often that they got fooled.
So then, of course, Fredericka had to read about Ozma’s birthday party from the end of The Road to Oz, the way she almost always did. The others never minded listening to this once again. It took them back to their own happy, carefree, innocent childhood.
When she had finished, Barnaby looked around at the others. “Anybody else?”
Ordinarily Susan would have been the last to answer. She wasn’t a quick reader out loud and was afraid of disgracing herself in Barnaby’s hearing by stumbling over long words. But today she looked at the little old shabby-looking book on the top of her pile, and something made her change her mind.
“I’ve got this book here,” she said.
“What is it?” said Barnaby. “Who’s it by?”
“I don’t know,” said Susan. “It doesn’t seem to say. I just kind of think it might be interesting.” And she opened the worn red cover and began to read.
These are the words that Susan read:
“‘The best kind of book,’ said Barnaby, ‘is a magic book.’
‘Naturally,’ said John.
‘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 . . .”
Susan’s voice trailed off. She looked at the others.
“It can’t be,” said Barnaby.
“It is,” said Susan. “It’s about us! All of us, and every single thing we said!”
Barnaby reached for the book, rather greedily Susan thought, and yet what of it? This was no time to be worrying about manners, and Barnaby could read the fastest. He was reading fast now, flipping over the pages one after the other.
“You’re right,” he muttered as he read. “We’re all in it.”
“How could we be?” said John. “How’d we get there without our knowing it?”
“I don’t know,” said Barnaby, “but we’re there all right. It tells about us, and our parents, and your Grannie, even. And a lot more about me being stubborn and unpopular and you sticking up for me,” he went on, his face getting rather red.
“What does it say about me?” said Fredericka.
“It says you’re fierce-tempered,” said Barnaby.
“Well, I am,” said Fredericka.
There was a silence. Everybody stopped walking and just stood there.
“What’s happening?” said Abbie. “Do you suppose we’re magic, suddenly?”
“Either we are,” said John, “or that book is.”
“Maybe it isn’t a book at all,” said Fredericka in eerie tones.
“I don’t like it,” said Abbie. “It’s creepy. Let’s take it back and tell the library we don’t want it.”
“Or bury it with a stake through its heart,” said Barnaby.
But nobody laughed.
“Do you suppose,” said Susan, “we’re not really real at all but just characters in this book somebody wrote?”
This was a sobering thought.
“I don’t want to be not real,” said Fredericka, all of a sudden not seeming fierce-tempered at all but just little and scared.
There was another silence. Everybody looked at Barnaby. Barnaby thought a minute. Then he shook his head.
“No,” he said, “it can’t be that. Because when the book tells about me and Abbie and Fredericka, it says we’ve just moved here. But I remember being me long before that.”
“Maybe that part of you was in another book,” said Susan. She didn’t mean to say it, but it just slipped out.
Barnaby was undaunted. “All right,” he said. “Suppose we are book characters? It never bothered us before, before we thought about it. It doesn’t have to bother us now. Characters have all kinds of interesting things happen to them. And here’s a whole bookful of adventures and we’re just at the beginning!”
“What happens next?” said Fredericka, standing on tiptoe and trying to see over Barnaby’s shoulder (only she was too little to reach).
“What happens at the end!?” said Abbie. “That’s what I’m worrying about!”
“How far did you get?” said Susan. “Did the Susan in the book find an old book in the library, too, and start reading out loud from it?”
“That’s where I stopped,” said Barnaby. “‘Susan opened the worn red cover and began to read,’ it says.”
“Just think,” John said dreamily. “If we find a book about people like us and the people in the book find a book about people like them, and the people in that book find a book about people like . . .”
“Don’t!” cried Susan. “It’s like those awful arithmetic problems that go on and on.” She turned back to Barnaby. “Then what does the book say. Is it taking down everything we’re saying now, like a stenographer?”
“No,” said Barnaby. “It doesn’t say anything then. The page ends there.”
“Turn over,” said Fredericka.
“Look in the back,” said Abbie.
Barnaby tried. “I can’t,” he told them. “It’s stuck or something. The whole rest of the book’s shut solid tight.”
“I suppose that’s as much as they want us to know,” said Abbie darkly. “And now I suppose the awful thing happens.”
“What awful thing?” said Fredericka.
“I don’t know. Some awful thing. It stands to reason.”
“Not necessarily,” said Barnaby. And then even he broke off and caught his breath and looked around warily.
But what happened was nothing at all. Except that the sun went on shining and the sky went on being blue and some cars drove by and an oriole sang and a woman came out of a house and began beating a carpet.
After a few minutes of this usualness everyone found himself breathing more regularly again. The five children found themselves walking along again, too, and waiting for Barnaby to begin having more ideas. And pretty soon he did.
“Of course,” he said. “I’m beginning to see it all. Don’t you remember? We said we wanted a special magic book of our own.”
“About five children just like us,” said Abbie. “You said that part.” And she pointed an accusing finger at Fredericka.
“No matter who said what,” said Barnaby, “it looks as if we got it, somehow. But something had to make the wish come true. And what else but the book itself could have done that?” He turned to Susan. “Where’d you find it in the first place?”
“On the bottom shelf of the fairy-tale section,” she said, remembering.
Barnaby nodded excitedly. “It all adds up. Think of it sitting there all those years, with the magic from all those other books dripping down onto it! It’s prob’ly soaked with magic powers by now. It’s prob’ly been sitting there waiting for somebody to come along and make a wish in front of it. And we came and wanted a magic story; so that’s what it turned into. Prob’ly if we’d wanted pirates, it’d have turned into a book about a pirate ship with us on board. But we asked for magic; so that’s what we got.”
“What kind of wish is that?” said Fredericka. “What good is a book about us? We know about us.”
“We don’t know what’s coming next,” said Barnaby. “All we’ve had is the beginning. What else did we wish for? Think back.”
“I said the people in the book would be walking home from somewhere and the magic would start suddenly before they knew it,” said Susan.
“Well?” said Barnaby. “That part came true. And then I said they’d have to tame the magic and learn its rules and thwart it and make the most of it. So I guess it’s up to us to do that from now on.”
Barnaby was certainly having ideas today. In fact, he was having them so fast the others could hardly keep up with him. But they were exciting ideas, all the same.
“You mean,” said Susan, “there’s a whole book still going to happen to us?”
“That’s what I think,” said Barnaby.
“But if it’s all there in the book,” said John, “why not use the magic and wish the book open? So we can read the next chapter and know what to expect?”
“I don’t think it works like that,” said Barnaby. “I think that’d be against the rules. Anyway, maybe there isn’t any next chapter, yet. I think if we could pry open the rest of the pages, they’d prob’ly be blank. I think it’s prob’ly up to us to make more wishes and have them come true, so as to fill the pages up!”
“Sort of make up the book as we go along?” said Abbie.
“You mean it’s ours to use?” said Susan. “Like a wishing ring, sort of?”
“Only mixed up with those things they have in offices,” said Fredericka. “Those things you talk into.”
“Dictaphones,” said John.
“Whatever they’re called,” said Fredericka.
“That’s the idea,” said Barnaby. “More or less.”
Everyone thought about this.
“That book,” said John, “had better be handled with care from now on.”
“Don’t anybody dare even think about wishing,” said Susan, “till we’ve talked it out and decided what kind of adventure we want.”
“You ought to do the deciding,” said Barnaby. “You’re the one who found the book in the first place.”
That was typical of Barnaby. He might be grabby, but he was fair. Susan’s hand went out toward the book. Then she pulled it back and shook her head. Barnaby was the one with ideas. Let him go on having them.
“No, you go first. You’ll do it better.”
“No, you ought to be the one.”
“No, honestly, I’d rather.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” said Fredericka. “If everybody else is too polite around here, let me!” And she laid hold of the book.
“Stop her, somebody!” cried Abbie. But it was too late. Fredericka was already talking, gabbling her words without stopping to breathe for fear someone would interrupt her, the way youngest children in families soon learn to do.
“I wish we’d have a magic adventure, with wizards and witches and magic things in it, and I wish it’d start right now, this minute, so we’ll know for certain it’s really our wish coming true and not just a coincidence!”
“That’s done it,” said Barnaby, when Fredericka finally stopped just before utter breath failed.
But it didn’t seem to have. Nothing happened.
“Maybe the book didn’t hear her,” said Abbie.
“Maybe I’m supposed to kiss it or something,” said Fredericka.
“Maybe we’re supposed to keep on walking,” said Barnaby. “The minute isn’t up yet.”
They kept on walking. Round a bend in the road they came on a house they had always specially noticed in the past. It was a perfectly ordinary-looking house in a perfectly ordinary-looking garden, but it had an interesting sign by the driveway.
“Slow,” warned the sign. “Cats, et cetera.”
In the past the five children had often stopped and waited by the driveway, in hope that something other than a cat would come out. But up till this second nothing had.
At this second (which happened to be the fifty-ninth since Fredericka had made her wish), something did.
What came out was a dragon.