The Tale of Kerby Maxwell and the Magic Chemistry Set
The Tale of Kerby Maxwell and the Magic Chemistry Set
Scott Corbett's Trick Series
For years I tried to remember where I heard the words "temper mental." I'd used it against so many irritable people. "He's just 'temper mental,'" I would think, completely forgetting where I'd learned the term. I gave up ever remembering when I picked up The Baseball Trick by Scott Corbett, a book I loved when I was a boy and hadn't read in years. Decades. The book opens with the following passage:
Bumps had two words to describe baseball pitchers.
"All pitchers are temper mental," he told Kerby as they sat in their private clubhouse talking over the 8-0 win Fenton Claypool had pitched for their sandlot team. "Temper mental. Moody. Now you take Fenton. Doing ordinary things, you couldn't ask for anybody with an evener temper. Always nice, never sore about nothing. Steady as a rock. But put a glove on him and send him out to the pitcher's mound, and what is he?"
Bumps reached out and tapped Kerby on the chest with two powerful fingers.
"Temper mental, that's what."
It's funny, the things that stick with us into adulthood.
Bumps Burton, Fenton Claypool, and Kerby Maxwell are three of the main characters in a series of children's books by the author Scott Corbett. Beginning with The Lemonade Trick, published in 1960, and ending with The Hangman's Ghost Trick, published in 1977, these twelve books are known collectively as the Trick series. The title comes from the chemical potion, or "trick," that becomes the catalyst for most of the novels' misadventures. The first in the series is The Lemonade Trick, followed by The Mailbox Trick, The Disappearing Dog Trick, The Limerick Trick, and so on.
The hero of all the novels, Kerby Maxwell, is a boy of uncertain age who lives with his parents and a mixed breed half-puppy named Waldo. His best friend, Fenton Claypool, is polite in the extreme and is a strong defender of science in the face of potions that seem to be magic. The two boys, from the end of the first book on, belong to a club headed by their once-enemy, Bumps Burton, a bully who twists other boys' noses "like a doorknob."
One day, that is to say, once upon a time, while Kerby is in Peterson Park, rushing to get home on time for dinner, he meets an old woman named Mrs. Graymalkin, whose high heel is caught in a grate in the sidewalk. Mrs. Graymalkin, as Fenton says, is an eccentric. She wears a black dress, black cape, and black hat, which bears a long feather that droops forward. She drives an old sedan named Nostradamus. As a reward for getting her shoe loose, she gives Kerby a "Feats 'o Magic Chemistry Set," which used to belong to her son, Felix. She has never forgiven Felix for growing up and so takes an interest in Kerby. In all but the second book, Kerby uses the chemistry set to help him solve his latest dilemma, which sets off a series of misadventures.
They meet Mrs. Graymalkin at dusk, when she takes her "constitutional" in the park. She places a thin finger beside her bony nose to think. Her photographic memory allows her to decribe to Kerby exactly which tube of chemical (each tube bears a label, but most are faded, with the exception of "Flt." and "Slp." in The Baseball Trick) and how many drops to dilute in water. Unforseen circumstances, of course, bring much of the adventure.
Scott Corbett was a teacher and writer. His first novel, The Reluctant Landlord, was filmed as Love Nest with June Haver and Marilyn Monroe. He wrote seventy-four books, including sixty-four novels for children and five educational books. In addition to the Trick series, he wrote five children's mysteries featuring Inspector Tearle and four books in The Great McGoniggle series. I've read none of these others.
The Trick series falls under the category of Low Fantasy, meaning that the fantasy world exists within a realistic one, as in the opening chapters of each Harry Potter book, in which muggles interact with witches and wizards, even if they don't know it. Fenton, of course, would say the books fall within the category of science fiction. He's convinced that all they have to do is analyze the chemicals and they'll be able to figure out how they make people behave opposite to their nature, speak in limericks, become master baseball players, and grow facial hair before adolescence. Kerby lives in a world that is supposed to make sense. Life, for Kerby, is a boy's world of sports and school, friends and the antics of his dog. Except that Waldo will look at himself in the mirror to see the results of Kerby's latest experiment; the cat next door, Kerby is convinced, enjoys Waldo chasing him up a tree so that he can show off how well he climbs trees; and when he falls, he becomes amnesiac and thinks he's a dog. The real world is half-magic, anyway, so that Kerby is willing to entertain the notion that Mrs. Graymalkin may be a witch and that the chemistry set hidden in his childhood toy box really can do magic. Even Fenton, the voice of science and reason, finds himself teetering on the edge of belief in magic, holding out only on the hope, at times fragile, that Mrs. Graymalkin only affects to be a witch and a sample of one of the chemicals could unlock her secrets.
In reality, Kerby lives in a nearly absurd world where logic gives up its sovereignty and order easily turns to chaos. Even without the potions, the cat next door laughs when Waldo loses all his hair, a child's Halloween witch mask looks disturbingly like Mrs. Graymalkin, and Kerby's parents are relieved when their son is no longer eager to do chores. Then Kerby and Fenton open the "Feats o' Magic" chemistry set and waver between believing they concoct scientific and magic potions. Chemicals dropped onto the bottom of a beaker turn it into a type of television; the neighborhood bully and the straight-laced boy on the next street exchange personalities after drinking lemonade, Fenton, playing a Christian martyr in the church play, clubbing Bumps, in the role of a Roman centurion, with the prop sword belonging to the oddly passive Bumps; a grasshopper accidentally swallows potion and jumps farther than the boys have ever seen; drops from wrongly-placed tubes create a black smoke that leaves Kerby with a beard, Fenton with a melodrama villain's pencil mustache, and Waldo with no hair on his body and legs.
The Trick series stories are fairy tales set in the modern world. Like fairy tale heroes, Kerby and his friends are outsiders, just within the bounds of being out and out misfits. Bumps is a bully. At the end of the first book, after Kerby and Fenton defend the out-numbered bully, Bumps tells them that no one ever took his side before, and he becomes their, still-bossy, friend and permanent president of their club. Fenton was the new boy, in The Lemonade Trick. He's described as straight-backed, intelligent, polite, and calm. Even Bumps left him alone. Corbett tells us, "Bumps did not know quite what to make of Fenton Claypool. No one did." Yet none of the other kids at school, we're told, resent his politeness and intelligence, and he quickly becomes Kerby's best and most trusted friend. And, finally, when we first see Kerby, at the beginning of the series, he's playing in the park with no friend but Waldo. He has to find a stranger to tell him what time it is. None of the books describe Kerby as being rejected by his peers, but they play such a minor role in the books. They fill out the baseball team and the church choir, three boys play the minor role of a rival gang, but they have little else to do in Kerby's life. In fact, Kerby, Fenton, and Bumps are the only members of their club. Their clubhouse is too small for even Waldo to join them.
It's unlikely that Corbett thought about his whimsical series quite to this depth, but narratively, the pre-series conditions of these characters are appropriate to a fairy tale. Kerby, so mischievous that his mother worries when he does what he's told, stops to help an old woman remove her heel from a grate. As a fairy godmother, she gives him the means to make his life adventurous and, thereby, win friends and learn valuable life lessons. Like the Simpleton in the Russian fairy tale, "The Flying Ship," collected by Andrew Lang in his Yellow Fairy Book and by Arthur Ransome in his Old Peter's Russian Tales, Kerby gathers the neighborhood outcasts and wins a type of glory – or a series of glories – in the sight of those who had nothing to do with him.
Mrs. Graymalkin, like a fairy godmother, appears when Kerby needs her. He searches the park, near the grate where he'd first seen her, and she's nowhere to be found, until she appears mysteriously behind him and sweetly greets him. She lends assistance with potions that work more like spells. She appears only at dusk and in the evening.
Like Fenton not wanting to believe the evidence of his eyes in order to believe only in the evidence of his hopes, I consider again just how much Corbett intended. Certainly he chose intriguing names for his characters. Mrs. Graymalkin's name is associated more with spirit than with witch. According to W. W. Skeat's Etymological Dictionary, Malkin is derived from the name Maud, or Matilda, which Skeat identifies as a name for a cat. Therefore, the name Graymalkin (Grimalkin, in Skeat's dictionary), means gray cat. Graymalkin is the name of the first witch's familiar in Shakespeare's Macbeth (Act I, scene 1). I suppose that makes her son "Felix the Cat."
The names Kerby, Maxwell, Fenton, and Claypool refer to water and marshland – a reference to their being involved with beakers half full of water, maybe. Perhaps I make too much of this. I've been reading a little too much about the alchemical background of the Harry Potter series and see it everywhere, now. Still, Pembroke, the name of the busy body next door, who resents both Kerby and Waldo entering her yard, means "broken fence," and her regal cat, Xerxes, bears a name that means prince. This many ties to roles played through the books can't be coincidence.
Fairy and folk tales serve well as models for children's literature, for all literature. Their art is the combination of vivid detail, imagination, and compression. Consider how much detail an author of realistic fiction needs to create what is covered, in a fairy tale, by the words, "He went out into the world to make his fortune." The years of oral transmission have focused the storyline, directed its movement to its inevitable end, distilled its details, keeping only the most interesting and pertinent. Fairy and folk tales and myth work within the structures that speak directly to the human soul: the quest, the mastery of the beast, the striving after liberation and sovereignty, the search for love and acceptance. In modern literature, this art is kept alive by a few mainstream authors, particularly by Latin American and Middle Eastern Magic Realist writers, and in some Scandinavian authors, but is primarily preserved in fantasy and science fiction.
Writers of children's literature also build their stories around these archetypal structures. Phillip falls into an underworld of darkness in The Cay, Ramon fights the beast Manta Diablo in The Black Pearl, Shasta and Bree search for their ancestral homeland in The Horse and His Boy, a benevolent creature from above helps the whole world see the inherent value of the runt Wilbur in Charlotte's Web. Children, whose egos are not as developed as an adult's, live much closer to their unconscious minds. As in Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, "Block City," a sofa easily becomes a mountain, a carpet quickly becomes the ocean. "No wonder my daughter says she can smell her doll's dirty diaper!" a young mother once said to me at a workshop. The very structure of what I call Traditional Literature speaks more deeply into a child, I believe, than into an adult, even when the story is couched in more realistic details. Ramona always triumphs, in spite of all the chaos she creates.
Following the structure of a fairy tale, Kerby moves from misunderstood to triumphant, or from misunderstanding to wise. He moves from a house in which he violates some kind of order into basements and graveyards, into a fog-filled wilderness, Peterson Park, to consult with the familiar Mrs. Graymalkin. His potion/talisman gives out on him, usually by its container getting smashed, or he tears up the result of his spell, his ill-gained masterpiece of a poem, and he continues on, using his own initiative and skill and intelligence and returns to his home having proved himself.
Author Ursula K. LeGuin once described her method of plotting a story as moving "from A to B – or, more often, from A to A – by the most difficult and circuitous route" ("Introduction to City of Illusions," The Language of the Night). This is Mrs. Graymalkin's method of education. Maybe in spite of the lessons Kerby learns, Mrs. Graymalkin is a spirit of anarchic fun. I've always thought there was something about that twinkle she gets in her eyes when she's trying to think of what chemicals Kerby should mix together. If she has anything at all to teach Kerby it's to have fun on his way to the lesson, that his A-leads-to-B plans will always go awry (ironically, usually through the scientific Fenton, who is always letting curiosity get in the way of common sense), and that life will be more interesting for it.
Corbett's world is fun. He indulges in all the wish fantasies of childhood. Who wouldn't like a magic potion to drop into a glass of lemonade to make one's enemies be nice? Who wouldn't like to hit the ball out of the park? Who wouldn't like to retrieve the letter or note never meant to be seen and, when caught, be rewarded?
Who wouldn't like the lessons one has to learn in life be filled with magic…uh…scientific…well…magic.
Scott Corbett's Trick series falls within the minor classics of the era in children's literature that saw Eleanor Cameron's Mushroom Planet series (must we be millionaires in order to read the rest of the books in the series?), Madeleine L'Engle's Time series, beginning with the classic A Wrinkle in Time, as well as Kerby Maxwell's confederate-in-spirit, Danny Dunn, in a series of novels by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin, producer of that wonderful independent film and fairy tale, The Little Fugitive. Kerby is younger brother to Henry Reed, Homer Price, and Homer Macauley. The books are written for children about eight to ten years old, and they seem to still be in print, although I can't get four of the last five books at my local library. I haven't found any copies in my local bookstores – even the local used bookstore chain has rebuilt its children's section for selling almost exclusively remainders of current books. I can, however, find several cheap recent editions on Bookfinder.com and AddAll.com. Of course, I prefer to read a yellowed hardback edition.
He lifted the beaker to his lips and drank its contents.
The instant he did this, Kerby was scared. He remembered Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and what had happened to Dr. Jekyll when he got to messing around with his chemistry set. Dr. Jekyll had drunk some stuff he mixed up, and the next thing he knew he had changed into a horrible, hairy man who went out and did all sorts of terrible things. It made him bad – very bad.
But this, Kerby's first experiment, didn't make him very bad. It would be several months and several books before it made him hairy. The potions he concocted brought him confusion, chaos, and adventure. Like the hero in a fairy tale, they brought him the complications that forced him to use his own intelligence, that brought him into his peaceable world where he could mutter to Waldo, "Sic 'em," and his dog would tear after Xerxes and chase him up the tree, Mrs. Pembroke could storm out of her house screaming at Kerby about what a bad boy he was, and his parents would once again tell him to stop bothering the neighbor, blissfully ignorant of their son's other world of foggy afternoons in the park, where he meets a supposed witch who tells him how to use his secret chemistry set to twist reality out of all proportion.
The Trick Series
- The Lemonade Trick, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1960)
- The Mailbox Trick, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1961)
- The Disappearing Dog Trick, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1963)
- The Limerick Trick, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1964)
- The Baseball Trick, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1965)
- The Turnabout Trick, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1967)
- The Hairy Horror Trick, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1969)
- The Hateful Plateful Trick, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1971)
- The Home Run Trick, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1973)
- The Hockey Trick, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1974)
- The Black Mask Trick, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1976)
- The Hangman's Ghost Trick, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1977)