Let’s Analyze A Pinch of Magic: Chapter Four

Welcome back to my analysis of A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison. I’ll be quoting directly from the book and noting things that are working well, as well as things I would have changed. I do this as an example of how you should be reading books when you are a writer studying them for craft.

You can view the first five chapters that I’ve analyzed on my Buy Me a Coffee by becoming a member.

A Pinch of Magic

A spellbinding middle grade fantasy about three sisters who go on a quest to break the curse that’s haunted their family for generations.​

All Betty Widdershins wants is an adventure–one that takes her far away from Crowstone, the gloomy island where she’s always lived. But instead of an adventure, Betty and her sisters, Fliss and Charlie, are given of a set of magical objects, each with its own powers: a scruffy carpet bag, a set of wooden nesting dolls, and a gilt-framed mirror. And these magical objects come with their own terrible secret: the sisters’ family is haunted by a generations-long curse that prevents them from ever leaving their island–at the cost of death.

The sisters set out to break the curse and free their family forever. But after stumbling upon a mysterious prisoner who claims to be able to help them, they find themselves in great danger. And in order to break the curse–and stay alive–they must unravel a mystery that goes back centuries, one that involves shipwrecks, smugglers, and sorcery of the most perilous kind.

Another week, another chapter to analyze. We’re getting into the thick of it now. We should be getting grounded in Betty’s everyday life and getting some calls to adventure now. We don’t need to answer those calls, but they should be lingering in our minds. And I’d venture that Betty is just itching for an adventure so I’m sure she’s got an eye out for it. When we last saw her, Betty had just turned invisible.

Stunned, Betty lifted her hands in front of her face. She could see them, but the mirror showed nothing… and it was plain no one else could see her, either. Just to be certain, she made a rude gesture at Granny… but her grandmother continued to stare straight through her.

  • Note to self: if ever you find you may be invisible. Flip someone off.
  • So this is just assuring us that the magic has happened. No one can see Betty, not even mirrors.
  • I love this bit of characterization for Betty. She’s so sassy that her first thought to make sure she’s invisible is to “make a rude gesture.”

“It’s not a laughing matter,” Granny said. “These aren’t toys to play with.”
… “Then what’s the point of them?”
“They’re for protection. To help us out of a sticky spot.”
“Not likely to get used much, then… The only sticky spots around here are when Fliss hasn’t washed the dishes properly.”
“Hey!”

  • We were full force about learning about the curse but it seems we’ve slowed down a bit here. We have lines like “They’re for protection” and “to help us out of a sticky spot” instead of things like “they’re to help break so-and-so’s curse over us.”

For the next few pages, there seems to be a pacing issue with the information. We learn (or at least double down on the fact) that the items only work for one person, only Widdershins daughters, and the items can’t be swapped. If no one is there to inherit them, they stay unused. No one can use more than one item.

Granny readily has this information ready to spill, but as soon as we get to where they came from or why the Widdershins have them, Granny tightens her lips.

Couple of things to note here, much of which is a personal preference: I don’t like that this information is just being handed to Betty. Imagine how much this story changes if Betty picks up the dolls, not knowing what they are, and disappears until she can correct the magic. The same with the carpetbag and the mirror. I would have liked to have seen Betty and her sisters learn this information on their own.

Then we have Granny and her waffling of information. She spills that they’re cursed, they can’t go anywhere, and they have magical items that only work within the family. It’s clear she knows more and Betty even comments quite a few times that it’s clear Granny isn’t being entirely truthful. I find that incredibly aggravating. We were promised that Betty would learn of the curse on her birthday but it feels like Granny is keeping that information at bay. If we’re going to learn about it upfront, then let’s learn about it.

Plenty of writers like to string information along, giving us little bit by little bit, and I will confess that in some circumstances (and moods), it works well. There feels like there is a big payoff when you finally learn something. But here, I just feel like I’m being lied to. Both by the author, who promised us that we’d learn this information with Betty, and by Granny, who clearly knows more than she’s telling us.

“Why would we need it?” Betty asked.
“You never know,” Granny mumbled… “There might come a time when you girls need to hide or escape quickly. Just like I did one night, before you three lived here. There was a break-in… I used the bag… I’m not saying you will need them. But you must never use these objects without care, especially in a place like Crowstone. Most people here are connected to the people in that prison. Dangerous people, who’d go to any length to get their hands on these things…”

  • Granny has some prejudice. Earlier, Betty (or at least the narrator following Betty) told us that almost everyone in Crowstone knew someone in the prison and they stayed in town to be close to them. It was a sad bit of information, but Granny here has a different viewpoint. Everyone around them is dangerous and plotting someone’s release from prison.
  • It raises a few questions: Granny specifically notes that people would love to get their hands on a bag that could transport people out of the prison. So has Granny ever thought about getting her son out of prison? She also notes that the dolls could help people sneak past the warders. Has Granny ever thought about it or tried it?

“None of this answers what you promised to tell us earlier… about why we can’t leave Crowstone.”
Granny sighed… “No Widdershins girl has ever been able to leave Crowstone. If we do, we’ll die by the next sunset.”

  • Look, I’m no parent. But given how easy it seems to catch a ferry and leave, this seems like the information I’d ingrain in my kids so they don’t risk it.
  • Although Granny says she wanted to get the good stuff out of the way, I wonder why she didn’t lead with “you could have died.”
  • And it’s great that we’re finally getting some answers, but I feel like, as it pertains to information regarding the curse, the last few chapters just dragged on. This is one of those things where I wonder about the safety of keeping it such a secret. Betty and Charlie could have done a better job sneaking away to the next island to go trick-or-treating and then they’d be dead. That’s a huge risk to take by not telling them.

If I were reading this instead of analyzing it, I’d probably put it down now. The introductory chapters tell us a lot about how the book is going to go. I don’t feel like the curse-reveal really warranted four into five chapters worth of plot. Granny could have shown up on the boat, taken the girls home, and then immediately told them they could have died.

It was important to slow down and show us Crowstone, however. We needed to see the hustle and bustle of everyday life and expand the world.

This is where extreme subjectivity comes in: As a child, I would have focused on the magical items. How are Betty and her sisters going to (so obviously) break the rules and the curse? Are they going to get their father out of jail? Will they make amends with the woman we saw in the prologue?

But as an adult, I’m fixated on the pace of information and the fact that I feel like Granny is lecturing me and the girls with said information. I want to go find this information out by myself. I want to get lost in the magic and then see the consequences.

  1. Objects
  2. Fairy Tales
  3. Mind Mapping
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Published by J. M. Tuckerman

J.M.Tuckerman is a neurodivergent writer with a big education. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, an MA in Writing, and a BA in Writing Arts (specializing in Creative Writing, New Media Writing, and Publication; concentrating in New Media Production), which she somehow managed to earn despite her three very loud and large dogs. Jessica was lucky enough to intern at Quirk Books and Picador, USA while earning her master’s degrees. Her service dog, Ringo, is very proud of all that she has accomplished and hopes to be on a back cover of a published book with her very soon. An avid reader, writer, and lover of young adult and middle-grade literature, Jessica’s bookshelf is overflowing with hardbacks, paperbacks, and a million half-filled notebooks. She is a proud fur-mommy to two lab/st-bernard littermates, a retriever-mix service dog, and one orange little hobgoblin cat, all of whom have made very audible appearances on the Booked All Night podcast.

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