When most adults think about childhood, they view it the same way Dorothy looks at the Emerald City in the original Wizard of Oz. Green-tinted glasses make the buildings and people of Oz sparkle as brightly as any gemstone. Take the glasses off, though, and things aren’t nearly as pretty.

As an adult, it’s easy to fetishize being a kid as a time of innocence. Of fun. Of no-strings-attached relationships. Yes, sometimes bad things happen. But, like Dorothy, adjusting the frames of our green-tinted lenses makes the bad stuff go away. It obscures the sharp edges that shape children into adults.

In her latest novel, Mister Magic, Kiersten White explores the idea of childhood trauma and how, by protecting kids from what is perceived as harmful or negative, parents miss some of the most critical elements that turn children into functional, confident navigators of the adult world. On the surface, Mister Magic evokes reminders of Stephen King’s masterful horror story IT. On a deeper level, though, White digs into the subliminal lessons children are taught by religion, culture, and family that have repercussions long into adulthood. Here are 3 particularly spectacular examples of bad parenting strategies from Mister Magic.

Turning Your Kids into A Social Experiment

Young girl standing in front of a blank TV with a fuzzy background

The premise of Mister Magic is a strange, but disturbingly believable one. Fitting into the realm of quirky children’s programming — a pantheon that includes The Tellytubbies, Barney, and Blue’s Clues (which, yes, all get shout-outs in the book) — Mister Magic is touted as the longest-running kids’ show ever. Set in a remote production studio located in the boonies of Utah, Mister Magic is an educational show that follows a rotating group of kids as they play pretend, dream sets into real life, learn important behavioral lessons, and sing catchy songs. Nothing out of the ordinary. At least, on paper.

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In reality, Val — the designated “leader” of the last children’s cast to grace Mister Magic’s inter-dimensional stage (more on that later) — has no memories of her time on the show. After her father’s death, Val is suddenly and mysteriously reunited with some of her former castmates, who also have problematically fuzzy memories.

In search of the mother she barely knew, Val joins Isaac, Marcus, Javi, and Jenny at what is supposed to be a 30-year reunion podcasting event. Instead, what Val discovers is a very creepy house, a strange Stepford Wives-esque town, and references to a sister who allegedly disappeared once the show ended. Fast forward several chapters, and it’s clear the children have been pawns in a conservative social experiment with highly dangerous supernatural elements.

In the book’s acknowledgement section, White describes how she was raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more popularly known as the Mormon Church). With such a background, it’s no surprise that White’s take on organized religion — and the obsessive, cultish mentality it can sometimes inspire in overzealous members — is not a great one. The characters in Mister Magic are (quite literally) placed in a black box with artificial boundaries that constrict their natural ability to grow. And it’s all in the name of “good parenting.”

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Although the kids in Mister Magic do, quite literally, live out the results of a decades-long experiment in social brainwashing, White’s story resonates with anybody who spent their childhood navigating what they thought a parent, pastor, or peer expected them to be. Within that process, something pivotal to a child’s identity can be lost. And that something — be it imagination, a sense of playfulness, or an identity — is almost impossible to get back. 

Telling Your Kids that Being Perfect is Possible

Two kids standing in front of a blank TV with a fuzzy background

Perhaps the character that most exemplifies the pressure to be perfect is Isaac, Val’s closest friend and adult love interest. Later on in the book (spoiler alert), readers realize that Isaac was the hand-picked successor to Mister Magic. As part of his “training,” Isaac learned how to take care of the other children and intuit what they needed, both physically and emotionally, before they even realized it.

It comes as no surprise, then, that as an adult, Isaac is an empathetic, highly observant character with a strong loyalty to Val. Isaac’s struggles with alcoholism and the shame associated with being an imperfect parent to his own daughter reflect a childhood filled with crushing expectations that subsumed his own needs and wants. Because of Mister Magic, Isaac cannot accept his flaws and how they make him human, a trait that (almost) results in his loss of self to the shadows of Mister Magic’s dark dimension.

Replacing Parental Love with Something Non-Human

Mister Magic book cover and the author's headshot

The most sinister element of Mister Magic’s allure is the culpability of the show’s adults. With the possible exception of Val’s father, the majority of the characters’ parents in Mister Magic willingly give their children to a spiritual force under the assumption that it can raise their offspring better than they can. Viewing themselves as unable to “fix” their children, these parents ended up unequivocally breaking them instead.

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The darkness of White’s story results in a surprisingly empowering takeaway, at least for readers who might be looking for it. Mister Magic shows us — through Val’s dedicated search for her sister, Jenny’s transformation into a confident woman who just happens to be a super mom, and Marcus’ embrace of his sexual orientation and love for Javi — that parenting is hard. It’s messy. It’s not going to go perfectly. And that’s okay because, at the end of the day, all anyone can do is their best. Leading with warmth and acceptance for our children’s quirks, desires, and dreams teaches them the most important lesson of all: self-love. And that might just be the magic ingredient that transforms them into capable adults.

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