The book Black and Blue Magic by Zilpha Keatley Snyder was first published in 1966. At the time, the setting was contemporary San Francisco. Today the story gives a glimpse into a childhood’s past where the summer stretched for three months without school.
However, the first sentence of the book promises this won’t be an ordinary summer, “On the very first morning of summer vacation when Harry Houdini Marco was almost twelve years old, a pretty weird thing happened.” The story doesn’t waste time before introducing the magic.
A reader could suspect magic would be a part of the hero’s journey just from his name. His magician father named him and hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. He even took Harry to the Great Swami to have his fortune told. “The old man had stared at Harry a long time and then in a slow, splintery voice he’d said, ‘The boy has a rare gift, and his magic will be of a very special kind.’”
His dad assumed this meant his son would be a great magician, but Harry isn’t so sure. For one thing, he lacks the dexterity at sleight of hand that a successful magician requires. He is actually very clumsy, falling and tripping to develop a continuous collection of bruises. Now that his father is deceased, this prophecy wears very heavy on Harry.
Through the usual boyish mishaps, Harry ends up returning a big suitcase to a man who appears to be a traveling salesman. He tells the man about his mom’s boarding house, since they can always use the money additional boarders bring in.
To Harry’s surprise, the man does take a room for a short time at his mom’s house. Before he leaves, the man gives Harry a beautiful bottle with a white liquid inside. One drop for each shoulder and say the spell.
Although he has misgivings about what could happen, Harry eventually says the spell and ends up with beautiful, big, white wings growing out of his shoulders. He has been given the gift of flight!
The hero gaining a superpower is a very popular story trope. The uniqueness of this book is Harry doesn’t put on a disguise and go fight crime. Like any twelve year-old boy would, he revels in flying and learning various techniques so as not to add to his continuous collection of black and blue bruises.
Of course Harry can’t go flying around at night without occasionally being spotted. The side story arcs of these minor characters are succinctly presented so that the reader knows seeing an angel has changed that person’s life. Angel is what the characters think they see, while Harry knows he no such person.
The most powerful interaction and the one that has stayed with me since middle school features two small children ages three and five who are adrift in a small dory in the middle of San Francisco’s bay. Harry is flying toward home when “…he heard a strange sound…and at first Harry kept right on going because he was so sure that he must have imagined it. After all, why would a baby be crying somewhere out there on the dark lonely water. But then he heard it again.”
His first plan is to fly home as fast as possible and contact the Coast Guard, in hopes they could find the children before the tide swept them out to sea. But when he overhears the little boy reassuring his crying sister that they’ll be home soon, Harry can’t leave them behind. He can’t land on the dory. It’s too small, and the kick he needs to fly again would capsize the small craft. He doesn’t want to become trapped with the children. That’s not a rescue. In the end, he tows the children to a dock where a party is occurring, and they are rescued. No one believes the little boy that an angel did it, but the reader knows how the “angel” did the rescue.
I read this book to my sons when they were in elementary school. My plan had been to do a couple of chapters per day. Didn’t work. They were so enthralled with the story, they begged for just one more. I’d started reading it aloud in the morning and spent the rest of the day speaking it. The boys were completely caught up in the story. At the end, they fell back against the bed and declared Black and Blue Magic to be a good book. High praise indeed from young boys.
Throughout the years, many people have suggested it would make an excellent movie, but no producer seems to have taken up the possibility. Until it comes to the screen (if it ever does), read the book and discover the magic for yourself.