Even if you’ve never read The Magicians trilogy, you know what The Magicians is. Currently streaming on Netflix, The Magicians is what would happen if twentysomethings with drinking problems obtained wizard-level magical powers. That wildly popular TV series is based on three novels by Lev Grossman, the first of which was praised by Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin like this: “The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea.”
Although dunking on Potter might seem a little dated now, Martin’s assessment of Grossman’s books — and the TV series they spawned — is still spot-on. The Magicians rocks. I say this because I was a fan of the first book the second it was published in 2009 and I saw myself in the angsty, pissed-off protagonist Quentin Coldwater. But. The Magicians was then, and this is now. And, although he was a dad while he was writing those rowdier books, in a recent chat over Zoom, Grossman tells me “I began to feel farther and farther away from that person, that narrative persona in The Magicians. I’m not even remotely the hard-drinking 20-something disillusioned character that is so central to that.”
So, if you’ve never read the adult books — or new kids’ book — written by Lev Grossman, why should you start? If you’re a cranky dad, who wants to be less cranky but also loves jokes about Narina, Lev is your guy.
When I first read Lev Grossman’s books, I wasn’t yet a dad, but I was very close to the hard-drinking disillusioned character he describes. This is why, when I saw he’d written a new middle-grade book for children – The Silver Arrow — I was excited and concerned at the same time. For me, a 39-year-old father of a 3-year-old, I associated my love of Grossman’s writing with a very recent memory of my past-self: A 29-year-old-single dude who could stay up until 1:00 Am every night, get wasted, and then get up the leisurely time of 11 a.m. and write some essays while smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. This is who I was when I first read Grossman’s books. This is not who I am now. I still drink coffee and I still write essays but everything else is different. And, what I discovered in reading The Silver Arrow is that Grossman is different, too.
“One reason I wrote The Silver Arrow is that with The Magicians it’s people in their late teens, their twenties, Quentin hits 30 in the last book — but nobody has kids, nobody is a dad in those books,” Grossman tells me. “I spend much of my day yelling at my children in a dad-voice and telling them stories. And that was the voice I was using so much of the time. And thinking in it. I wrote it because it was getting harder and harder to write like the author of The Magicians.”
The book – which was just published by Little Brown in September 2020 — is fantastic. Without spoiling the details too much, you’ve got an 11-year-old girl, a magic train, and a lot of wisecracks. The book is funny as fuck. If you like Lemony Snicket, this is funnier.
“You have to be funny now. Writers are so fucking witty now,” Grossman says with a laugh. “You read children’s books from the mid-20th century and there’s like five paragraphs of landscape descriptions. Like Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. But you can’t do that anymore! You gotta throw in some jokes and punch it up! I feel like the bar is so high. If you look back at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it takes so long for something to happen. It’s like ten chapters before he even finds the ticket. I feel like you can’t do that anymore. You have to pepper everything with jokes. You have to be moving things along.”
He’s not messing around either. By Chapter 4, the hero of The Silver Arrow — an 11-year-old named Kate — is on the titular train and bound for adventure. She’s got her little brother too, Tom, who she describes as a boy who “couldn’t read Fantastic Mr. Fox without crying. Weird how boys had feelings, too, but pretended they didn’t.”
When I read that line, all I could think was that the same thing could be said for dads. Even before I was a dad, I had feelings but pretended like I didn’t. But, part of the work of being a parent, and immersing yourself in the mindset of a child, it to get over that shit, and to go back to a time before the cynical twentysomething took over your brain.
“I definitely couldn’t have written The Silver Arrow before I had kids,” Grossman says. “I never really dealt with kids before I had kids. I didn’t have any younger siblings, I didn’t babysit, I didn’t really understand what kids were like or how to talk to them. Only after having been a dad for 14 years, when I started writing this book, then I felt like I was firmly in command of my talking-to-children-voice. I felt like I could try to put it on the page. Even then it was very difficult. Books for children have the air of having been written very spontaneously and easily; and I’m sure there are writers who do that. But Silver Arrow went through several revisions before it was up and running.”
Grossman is a father of three, and his youngest is the target age for the audience of this book. This detail matters. The stories we make up for our children are like smoke. Unless we write these ideas down, those stories can only live in the memories of our children. But, if you write books or songs for kids, you’re giving stories to the children who are constantly appearing in the world. It’s a simple concept, but a profound one when you realize that the child who loves The Phantom Tollbooth, or The Silver Arrow could still love those books when they become adults.
The book trilogy that will make you feel like a drunk magical twentysomething again. If you haven't read these books, you must do so now.
Or not. The children we have now are not the same people we end up with. Kids who read and love a book, change. The cynicism you might have had in your twenties, a cynicism that was your entire personality, will feel childish to you when you become a parent. So, what can you hold onto when constant change is burning down each of your new personas? There’s really only one answer: Good stories help.
“My oldest child was into trains, but now, has outgrown them and doesn’t care anymore. It took me so long to write the book that they are now too cool to read the book,” Grossman admits. “I basically had to have more children to create an audience for this book.”
If you’re looking for a book that will make you laugh, and remind you how fun outrageous stories can be for your kids, you can do no better than The Silver Arrow. If your kid isn’t quite old enough to love a wisecracking story about a magical train, buy the book anyway and read it for yourself. You just might find a part of yourself that you thought was lost.