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M is for Magic
Neil Gaiman

Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat."

Reviewed by Bill West

Ten stories and a poem from the pen of a master of fantasy writing. Neil Gaiman's collection of imaginative tales for younger readers, ages 10 up, is beautifully illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen.

The Witch's Headstone is the only new story in the collection and appears here as a taster for the soon to be published collection The Graveyard Book. The majority of the other stories are pretty good. How to talk to Girls at Parties was nominated for a Hugo award, and is brilliantly imaginative. All of the other stories have been taken from earlier collections; the opening story, The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds (1984) appeared in Angels and Visitations. In fact, the owners of copies of Angels and Visitations, Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things already have copies of most of these stories. But as this slim volume is aimed at young readers from age 10 upwards then they probably wont have seen these stories before, but older collectors should be warned that most likely they have! 

Gaiman states in his introduction that he is emulating Ray Bradbury who picked stories from his published works he thought younger readers might like. One of Bradbury's books, aimed at the 14 to 18 age group was called S Is for Space. This is where Gaiman got the idea for this collection. Perhaps it explains the rather retro, 1960's feel to the book's cover. The cover illustration, a cat staring up at the stars, is an intriguing choice which echoes the powerful and moving story in this collection, The Price, “there was nothing to be seen. Only the Black Cat on the steps, staring into the air.” 

The Price is not a story written for children. It has an adult main character and the hero, the cat, suffers terrible harm defending humanity from a demon. There is no happy ending. 

The introductory tale, The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds, is full of inventiveness and wit but lacks an engaging plot. A romp through the world of nursery stories as a private dick investigates the murder of Humpty Dumpty. Troll Bridge is an old favorite but not obviously a story aimed at 10 year olds. The troll is a creature of nightmare, “He had huge strong teeth, and rending claws, and strong, hairy hands.” See what I mean? “He was naked, and his penis hung from the bush of gonk hair between his legs,” Excuse me? “I'm going to eat your life Jack.” Great fun. Jack proves himself to be pretty amoral, offering his sister, and later his girlfriend, suggesting to the Troll “eat her instead.” 

Whilst Gaiman's prose lends itself to being read out loud teachers might reconsider reading these stories in front of classes of 10-year-old children. I don't have a problem with children reading these stories, but I would have been far happier if this collection had not been targeted at any age range at all. 

My other favorite stories were Chivalry, How to Talk to Girls at Parties and The Witch's Headstone. Chivalry is brilliantly Pythonesque, whilst How to Talk to Girls at Parties is Gaiman at his inventive best, taking the awkwardness of teenagers at a party and twisting it into a tale of exotic aliens. 

I was initially disappointed with October in the Chair. This develops into a brilliant story, but a reluctant reader, might happily skip the first seven pages to arrive at the meat of this stunning tale, “There was a boy, October said, who was miserable at home, although they did not beat him.” Perhaps the setting for this story, the personifications of each month meeting to tell their stories in a wood, might work well in a graphic novel but as a short story I found the structure cumbersome and flawed. This may be unfair as by his own admission Gaiman was a prose writer before he ever worked on graphic novels, and there are many who would disagree with me and love this story. Had I been his editor I would have suggested he trim it or, heaven forbid, write the other eleven stories with equal conviction. 

Gaiman's stories are brilliant, inventive but are perhaps a bit too rock-and-roll to be considered “safe” for the proposed age range. On the whole they deal with adult themes and have adult characters. I am a fan of Gaiman's graphic novels, his work with Terry Pratchett on Good Omens, and he has been hugely successful with his longer work for children, Coraline, which won both Hugo and Nebula awards for the Best Novella 2003 and the Bram Stoker Award for Best Work for Young Readers. M Is for Magic is a well produced publication which may well become a treasured introduction for younger readers to Gaiman's often brilliant stories. I only wish that Gaiman, or his editor's had abandoned the idea of age banding these stories. However, the overall quality of the stories speak for themselves.

Bill West studied English Literature at Hull University. He has been writing flash fiction since 2004 and has had a number of pieces published both on-line and in print. He lives in Shropshire, UK.


PublisherHarper Trophy

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?No

Author bio: Award-winning author Neil Gaiman is famous for his Sandman series of graphic novels. Also a successful children's author; Coraline made the New York Times best-selling children's book list. He has picture books to his credit, The Wolves in the Wall and The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish.

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