Do you believe in magic? Etan Hirsch does. So does the writer who created him.
Etan is the hero of “The Magical Imperfect,” the new middle-grade novel from San Diego author Chris Baron. In the beginning, Etan believes that trees can talk, that an ancient gemstone can bring him courage and that a clump of ancient clay can heal his friend Malia, whose skin is scarred from acute eczema. He comes to learn that the real healing magic is in family, friendship and community.
Baron believes in the magic of family, friendship and community, too. And as he came to learn while writing his debut middle-grade novel, 2019’s “All of Me,” the best way to make literary magic happen is through the power of poetry.
Like that first book, “The Magical Imperfect” is written in verse. Instead of telling its story through traditional chapters, “The Magical Imperfect” lets Etan’s struggles, triumphs and epiphanies unfold through poems written in his raw-nerve voice.
Whether it is the quiet comforts of Etan’s afternoons with his grandfather or the towering terror of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Baron captures both small personal moments and historical events by deploying the perfect detail, dialogue snippet or plot puzzle-piece at the perfect time. No more and no less.
Or maybe a little less.
“I think novels in verse are more participatory. As a reader, you are left to imagine a lot, but you don’t always know that you are,” said the 50-year-old Baron, a poet and professor of English at San Diego City College, where he is also director of the Writing Center. “If it’s written well, they don’t know they’re doing that. They just feel a connection.”
And in “The Magical Imperfect,” there is so much to connect to.
When the book begins, Etan is trying to deal with the temporary loss of his mother, whose mental-health struggles have landed her in the hospital. Without his sensitive, understanding mother to talk to, Etan has mostly stopped talking altogether. Etan’s dad tries to understand, but he’s having a hard time, too. He’s lost his faith, and he worries that he is losing Etan.
But in the midst of all this darkness, there is joy.
There is Etan’s grandfather, whose jewelry shop is the refuge Etan needs. There is the close-knit immigrant community of Ships Haven, with its view of San Francisco’s Angel Island, its friendly Main Street shopkeepers and the apartment building filled with neighbors who look out for each other.
Then there is Malia Agbayani.
The kids at school call her “The Creature” because of the eczema that has scarred her body and disfigured her face. But when Etan starts delivering groceries to her house, he discovers that the home-schooled recluse is a lively girl with a beautiful singing voice and a mystical connection to nature.
Etan also discovers that he is happy around Malia. Happy enough to draw pictures for her. Happy enough to hang out in her house and wolf down platefuls of delicious Filipino food. Happy enough to look for ways to make her life better.
“I think the real strength we have is in kindness, gentleness and empathy,” Baron said from his home in La Mesa, where he lives with his wife, Ella (whose own struggles with acute eczema inspired the character of Malia), and their three children. “Empathy, resilience and friendship are the thematic words for the story. That, and a sense of everyday magic.”
Baron’s love of shy outcasts and gentle underdogs has struck a chord with book lovers and book professionals alike. After being released in 2019, “All of Me” was recognized by the Southern California Booksellers Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Nerdy Book Club and Book Riot.
The response to “The Magical Imperfect” has been just as good. The book has received enthusiastic reviews from Publishers Weekly (which called Etan’s voice “honest and lovable”) and from Booklist, which gave it a starred review. Baron is being honored at the upcoming San Diego Writers Festival.
As a shy kid who struggled with his weight and the pain of not fitting in, Baron found solace in science-fiction and fantasy books.
Now, he is writing books that weave poetry and humanity into a safety net with room for everyone.
Call it necessary magic.
“Growing up, books were windows and mirrors, as people say. I could see myself and see where I wanted to be. In the most difficult times, they reminded me of something bigger that I could be a part of and that there was more to life than I was experiencing,” Baron said. “Kids do feel emotions. They are brave. And they want books that are real.”