By Amy Biancolli
Updated 6:43 pm EDT, Friday, October 25, 2019
Books are magic. Any kid can tell you that. Any person who used to be a kid can tell you that.
Just ask the novelist Gregory Maguire, who knows well the sorcery behind storytelling. Or ask the first- and second-graders in Wizard’s Wardrobe, an afterschool, one-on-one reading and writing program in Albany’s South End that assigns each kid a tutor and a cape.
“It’s a wizard!,” says Zaire Gordon, spying an otter in magician’s garb in “The Happy Trick-or-Treaters,” a picture book he’s reading one Wednesday with his tutor, Laurie Bonesteel. “My favorite thing!” Why? “Because it’s fun!”
Maguire, using more and bigger words, says much the same thing. He grew up in Albany’s Pine Hills, not the South End. He’s 65, not 7. He’s on the phone from his home in Concord, Mass., not curled over a book in the Wizard’s Wardrobe at 20 Rensselaer St. Nor has he met Zaire, a second-grader at Albany School of Humanities with an infectious smile.
But the author of 30-some books for adults and children — including “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” and a certain bestselling spin on “The Wizard of Oz” that inspired a certain Broadway musical — has his own stories to tell of literature and enchantment. Growing up on Albany’s Lancaster Street, he often visited the Pine Hills library branch in its old digs on Madison Avenue. Back then, he says, it was a “19th century baronial mansion.” And it was magic.
“Talk about a wizard’s wardrobe!,” says the author, who’s among the scheduled readers (see box) in a Monday-evening event benefiting the literacy effort. At first, “I could hardly get to the book stacks on the second floor of the Pine Hills library. … But when I did get up there, all the classic fantasies that appealed to people of my particular generation — “A Wrinkle in Time,” the “Narnia” books, “Mary Poppins,” “Peter Pan” — all those traditional fantasies of the great, golden era appealed to me. And I read voraciously.”
The one book that wasn’t fantasy: “Harriet the Spy,” Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 novel tracking an 11-year-old’s quest to comprehend the world. When he goes to conferences, he says, he’s stunned by “the number of people who became professional writers because of ‘Harriet the Spy.’ It’s really a single tripwire for an entire generation of writers.”
He was in fifth grade, maybe, when he fell in love with it — tumbling out of the library with fantasy books in one arm and “Harriet” in the other. He even started his own spy route in Pine Hills, checking on folks in the neighborhood — his family included — and then scribbling down his observations in “spy notebooks” that became his first writing journals. He still has them. “I have been keeping journals for 50 years — real journals. … If you add the spy notebooks, probably 55 years.”
Over at Wizard’s Wardrobe, the shelves hold more than 2,000 books. Open since early 2017 in space rented from the Albany Housing Authority, the center is a sunny hub just a few blocks from the Howe Branch Library and a stone’s throw from Giffen Elementary School, where many of its kids spend their schooldays.
Satiny capes hang in the lobby. Nearby is a small wardrobe that offers passage — literally — into the program’s main rooms, much like the magical cabinet linking Earth with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. Arriving after school, kids hang up their backpacks and make the crossing. “They walk through the Wizard’s Wardrobe, and it’s, ‘OK … now you’re walking into a space where the magic of reading happens,” says Agnes Zellin, executive director for the program and its only paid staffer.
“When kids are literate, the world’s open to them,” she adds. “And when they’re not, the world shuts down to them. … Words have power, and we need to teach that to the kids when they’re very young: That their words are important. That they have power.”
Maple Bee likes words. Another ASH second-grader at the wardrobe that day, she likes writing them. She likes reading them. She likes books — “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Chocolate Touch,” “Pete the Cat.” “It’s pictures, and it’s fun,” she explains, sitting with tutor Nancy Ost at a table near Zaire’s.
And wizards? Does she like those, too? She nods, then darts a wry look around the room. “There’s way too much wizards things in here.”
Last month, Maple was one in a handful of Wizard’s Wardrobe kids who took part in a children’s open mic at the Albany Book Festival, reading a story of her own. She was scared, she says. Really scared. But she felt good afterward. Someday, she’d like to be a writer.
Maguire has a few years on his 7-year-old colleagues, so he’s an old hand at reading his works in public. On Monday he’ll likely pull a passage from “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” his massively popular, deep-dive character study of the green-skinned iconoclast from the Land of Oz. The excerpt in question portrays the titular Elphaba in her mature years and “allows me to show both the comic, and, I think, the emotionally sober if not searing reality of this character’s life.”
Long involved with literacy efforts, the author stresses the importance of putting books — good books — in the hands of children. “Quality does matter,” he says, “and the quality of experiences that we give to children especially really do matter. People who start out life in underprivileged circumstances are already behind the starting line.”
Ultimately, literature is a way for children to “uncrack the secrets of the adult world.” That was the thrill of “Harriet the Spy.” It’s the thrill of every story, rooted in fantasy and magic, that packs the cosmos between book covers. “I think that in order to protect children,” Maguire says, “we gave the story of the world to them in disguise.”
Quoting the British moral philosopher Roger Scruton, he says: “‘The consolation of the imaginary is not imaginary consolation.’ And I think by that he means the Narnias of the world fill up some hunger we don’t know how to name, because we’re too young. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not being fed, and satisfied and nourished.”
Over on Rensselaer Street, Zaire is squirming with excitement. “I forgot to get my cape!” he says, scrambling into the lobby to grab a sleek blue cloak.
He and Bonesteel have finished the picture book, and he’s playing with a plush little Buzz Lightyear — eyes round, brows quirked. “I like scary stories,” he declares.
And what about Buzz? Does he like them, too?
“He likes stories,” Zaire confirms. “Stories are the bomb.”