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Site last updated:
1 January 2009

Ruth Chew

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Doing a book report?

Good choice of reading material.

Here is a biographical sketch from the flap of my hardcover copy of Mostly Magic (information from 1982):

"Ruth Chew is the author of a number of popular books for young readers, including Secondhand Magic and The Wednesday Witch. She was born in Minneapolis and studied art at the Corcoran School of Art, and is currently studying at the Art Students League. The mother of five children and the grandmother of four, she lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, Aaron B. Z. Silver."

Ruth Chew was born on April 8, 1920 and passed away on May 13, 2010 at the age of 90.

Click here for some additional information from Google Answers.

See below for a list of books she has written and illustrated (I think it's a complete list).

Buy the books

The books are being republished! See ruthchew.com for details.

These books are out of print. You will not find any of them in a new book bookstore.  You will be lucky to find them in person in a used book bookstore, for that matter: I think that used children's books - especially paperbacks - aren't as easy to re-sell as other books.  Used paperbacks in various conditions can be found for sale online in various places.  Hardback copies can be bought for a premium. Be aware that there are two kinds of hardbacks, the normal ones with plain cardboard covers and dust jackets showing the illustration, and books that have the illustration on the cardboard cover of the book itself, and were produced with no dust jacket at all. 

Identify a Book

Baked Beans for Breakfast (The Secret Summer)

Joe and Kathleen leave a note for their babysitter saying that they will be staying with their grandmother. Then they catch a bus to their family's summer vacation community. Alone! When they arrive, they buy supplies and camp in the woods (and at one point, eat baked beans for breakfast). Kathleen takes special care of her stuffed animal, Mouse. After they do some chores for an old lady who lives in town, they go back to the store and buy a boat and camp on an island in the middle of the lake. They free a chipmunk from a trap, make friends with some other kids on vacation, and confront two mean boys they already know. They almost get trapped on the island in a rainstorm, but get rescued by the Lake Warden before the island disappears under water. They get permission to stay with the friendly old lady for the rest of the summer.

Do-it-yourself Magic

Rachel and Scott buy a discount model kit and discover that it contains a hammer that turns invisible and changes the size of things. Scott builds a car, and Rachel shrinks him so he can drive it. He drives the car outside by accident, and she makes it life-size when she sees the toy almost get run over by a truck. A woman sees the car and tells the police, but Rachel shrinks it again. When they go back inside, they find a man trying to steal their TV. Rachel shrinks him. They feed him dinner and let him drive the toy car. They build a castle and Chester goes in. They make the castle bigger and find themselves in another world. They are invited to perform for the earl, the countess, and Lady Isabel at a banquet at the castle. Chester plays the mouth organ and tells how his friend Marty told him to go in the house and steal something, and how he was magically captured. They all sleep in the castle. Rachel makes friends with Lady Isabel at the water fountain, and travels with her and many others to a fair at Mansfield. Lady Isabel tells Rachel that she doesn't like being told what to do just because she's female, and warns Rachel to escape because some people think she's a witch. But Rachel has lost the magic hammer! Chester tells Scott and Rachel that he wants to stay at the castle and be a minstrel, and gives Rachel the magic hammer, which he had found by accident and put in his pocket. They use it to shrink the castle and return home.

Earthstar Magic

Ellen and Ben see a strange woman in the woods. Right where she disappears, they find a frog and a mushroom, which they take home. After the frog and mushroom disappear, they find a woman in a cave, named Trudy, who says the earthstar mushroom, which is magic but unpredictable, turned her into a frog, and that she was recently expelled from the coven by the Head Witch, and her witch's hat and broom were taken away. Later they find the witch and the mushroom at the frog pond. Trudy is tiny and has been using the mushroom to fly aruond. Ben and Ellen wish to be small so they can fly on the earthstar with Trudy. They eat parts of berries that are bigger than they are, and Ben almost gets fed to a baby bird. Ellen almost gets stepped on, but the earthstar changes her back to the right size just in time. Ben returns to normal size too. Ellen finds Trudy and shrinks the witch's hat she bought for her at a rummage sale. Ben and Ellen feed Trudy, who's a vegetarian, bits of cornflake and raisin. They let Trudy stay in a drawer in Ellen's room. During the night, Trudy wakes up Ellen and Ben, complaining that she wants to go to the witch's meeting. She asks for a broom, and changes Ellen and Ben into cats when they ask to go with her. At the meeting, the head witch tries to take one of the cats, but Trudy changes her into a mouse. She decides not to join the coven after all, and changes the head witch back. She returns Ellen and Ben to their normal appearances and returns their broom, encouring them to look for a magic earthstar of their own.

The Enchanted Book

Jay gives Serena a journal for her birthday. Words appear on its pages by magic the first time she tries to write in it. They find out that the book, which wants to be called "Her Majesty," can do spells, and she helps them clone Serena's new Rollerblades so they can both go to the park and skate. At the park, some teenagers try to take their skates, but they escape using a levitation spell ("Horse and Hattock"). When Jay and Serena try to make a clone of Jay's King Arthur book without Her Majesty's help, they wind up transported into another time and place. They meet a knight named Sir Miles Dubose and a beautiful girl with magic apples that temporarily turn Sir Miles into a donkey and Jay into a puppy. They eat dinner with Brother Donald the hermit under a bridge and help him get his cave back by feeding a dragon one of the magic apples. They meet the Lady of the Lake, who takes them to her luxurious underwater palace, where food tastes like whatever you want, people work happily, and people can do just about anything they want just by thinking about it, even ice skate on marble. The Lady talks about a missing friend who was probably enchanted by Morgan Le Fay. They realize that they don't belong at the palace, so they use the levitation spell to rise up through the lake. They find themselves at the lake in Prospect Park at night and fly home, where Serena who has a magic four-leaf clover, is able to change the book back into a person, the missing fairy Queen Mab.

The Hidden Cave (The Magic Cave)

Tom and Alice are exploring a drainage pipe in Prospect Park when it starts to rain. Lightning splits open a tree to reveal an old man with really long hair who says his name is Merlin. Tom and Alice suggest that he take shelter in the pipe and return home to find him some scissors to cut his hair and something blue and gold to wear. Alice accidentally dyes her white bedspread blue, then decides to add gold stars and curtain ties and give it to Merlin to wear. They take him some food and the robe and help him cut his hair. They have to show him how to eat a banana. The next day, they find him on a swing he made with his hair, and convince him to eat corn flakes. The three of them follow the tunnel, which magically leads to the library, where Merlin reads some books to try to remember how to do magic. Then Merlin pets a lion in the zoo. He disarms some boys who threaten them with knives by using magic to make the knives too hot to hold. Then he says he needs herbs to do proper magic, and the three take the tunnel again, magically arriving at the botanic garden. Merlin collects some leaves and twigs, but gives them to Alice because he doesn't have a pocket. Back home, Tom throws some of the herbs into the wading pool he's trying to set up, and the pool sets itself up. When Alice and tom get in, it becomes an ocean with an island. Merlin uses the rest of the herbs to set up a cave house in the pipe in the park, but still appreciates it when Alice brings him Fig Newton cookies to eat. Meanwhile, Tom has gotten himself kidnapepd by pirates in the magic wading pool. They escape and rescue a nice pirate, who gives them each a gold coin. Merlin uses more herbs to fix the pool so that Alice and Tom can swim in it safely. However, the bad magic of the pool makes their father want to dig up the yard looking for more gold coins. Merlin finds the Eye of Horus in the Brooklyn Museum and uses it to give Tom and Alice the ability to stop their father and to go back to King Arthur's time. Tom and Alice enjoy the pool for the rest of the summer.

Last Chance for Magic

The Magic Coin

Magic in the Park

It is winter, and Jennifer Mace is new to Brooklyn. She visits Prospect Park and meets an old man who feeds the birds, a raven named Napoleon, and a boy named Michael Stewart. Jen and Michael explore a magic island in the lake that turns into an underground tunnel, and a magic tree that temporarily turns them into pigeons. In the spring, Jen gets a bike for her birthday, but a mean boy named Steve tries to steal it. Mike helps her get it back, but almost gets stuck as a pigeon!

Magic of the Black Mirror

Mostly Magic

No Such Thing As a Witch

Nora and Tad are given fudge by a neighbor named Maggie Brown who has a lot of pets. After her brother and father start acting strangely, she deduces that one piece of fudge makes you like animals and that two lets you understand what they say. Mrs. Cooper gets angry when Tad and Mr. Cooper start feeding Skipper people food, and Nora goes over to complain to Maggie, who explains that the fudge wears off after a while. Nora and Tad visit Maggie again and pretend to each eat one piece of fudge. They each also take an extra piece. When they get it home, Tad eats two pieces, then three, starts acting a bit like a cat, then takes Nora's, and turns into a cat. Tad steals more fudge while he's a cat, and Nora locks it in a drawer. Maggie takes Nora and Tad to the zoo, where it becomes clear that she is good at taking care of animals, even though Nora had thought she was being mean to her bird. Nora and Tad enjoy spending time with Maggie and her pets, sticking to one piece of fudge per visit. Mrs. Hastings, another neighbor, and Mr. Hellman, a deli owner, are annoyed that Maggie feeds stray cats and keeps a lot of pets. Nora and Tad decide to help Maggie by cleaning up the apartment and hiding the extra animals before the arrival of the health inspector. Nora turns into a mouse and gets the key to the apartment. When Mrs. Hastings and the health inspector visit, Maggie arrives and gives them fudge so that they like her pets, and promises to make more for Mrs. Hastings in the future.

Royal Magic

Second Hand Magic

The Secret Tree-House

Sam and Margaret climb through a hole in the fence in the backyard of their new house to reach a vacant lot to explore. They eat a pear from the pear tree in the lot. When they start to dig a hole under the tree, the hole magically becomes a cave. They go in and are able to climb up inside the tree. When they climb down, one of the pear seeds that Margaret saved grows and hatches a talking green parrot, which flies into their house. Mr. and Mrs. Carter ask Margaret to try to buy some seeds for it from their neighbor, Mrs. Jenkins, who keeps a black cat named Blackie. But the bird says its name is Polly and asks for toast. When Sam and Margaret go back to the pear tree, they have to flee from a huge black cat. Mystified zoo people take the huge housecat away, which means Polly can fly around outside without worrying about Blackie. Margaret climbs the tree alone and sees a mother squirrel and her babies. With the help of the two other pear seeds, she understands that the mother squirrel is teaching her babies how to climb and jump. Then she captures Polly and takes her back inside by jumping between trees like a squirrel. Margaret and Sam go for a picnic in Prospect Park, where Sam also learns to run up trees and jump between branches like a squirrel. They go to the zoo and see the big cat, which they realize is Blackie, because they had seen a giant worm near the pear tree. Margaret cracks a pear seed, releasing smoke, and gives it to Blackie, who returns to normal size. They take him home to a delighted Mrs. Jenkins. When the family plants a garden, Sam plants one of the pear seeds. They use the last seed to destroy the pear tree to keep their brother Joey from wandering into the cave underneath. They plan to teach their brother how to climb like a squirrel when he and the new magic pear tree have grown more.

Summer Magic

Siblings Sarah and Timothy go to visit the Brooklyn Museum, and are transported back in time to 1675 by a magic musk rose from the Botanic Garden in Prospect Park. They meet Vrouw and Heer Maarten (Jannetje and Hendrick), who live in a house on Mill Island, and who feed them dinner and invite them to stay overnight. They encounter a bear while picking berries, and get lost. They meet an Indian boy named Beaver while digging clams, and later help him use his canoe to rescue his family (Running Doe, Moonglow, Brave Eagle, and Star Watcher) from pirates. Star Watcher takes the children back to the Marten's house and throws some dried herbs on the fire to send them home.

Trapped in Time

The Trouble with Magic 

Wednesday Witch

The smell of Mary Jane's mother's "Mischief" perfume attracts Hilda, the Wednesday Witch, to Mary Jane's house. The witch pretends to be a cleaning lady, and flies off on her vacuum cleaner James leaving her talking cat behind. Mary Jane gives the cat the name Cinders. When Hilda returns, Mary Jane's mother thinks shes from the vacuum cleaner company and uses James for cleaning, which he doesn't like. Hilda shrinks Cinders with her new magic scissors, but then leaves Cinders behind when she steals Mary Jane's roller skates to get home. Mary Jane finds Cinders inside a new dollhouse sent by an aunt as a late birthday present. She takes Cinders to school and shows her to her friend Marian. On Saturday, Mary Jane and Marian and Cinders take James to the beach for a picnic. Hilda comes back for James, but Mary Janes uses the witch's magic scissors to shrink her. She gets Mary Jane in trouble with her parents for making a mess, and Mary Jane agrees to fly her home to Witch Town, where she looks up the recipe for a magic measuring tape that will make things bigger. Mary Jane and Marian and Cinders help Hilda get the ingredients she needs, and Hilda fixes the real vacuum cleaner, which has also been shrunk. They work together to make a measuring tape, returning Hilda, Cinders, the vacuum cleaner, and some tools to their proper sizes. She takes James, but leaves Mary Jane her skates, which are now able to fold up and to fly!

What the Witch Left

Katy and Louise find some things locked in a dresser: a bathrobe, gloves, boots, a mirror, and a metal box. The gloves seem to make Katy play the piano, do homework, sew, and draw much better than usual. But the two girls get in trouble when they wear the gloves at school. Katy gives Louise the robe from the dresser to use for a costume in the Thanksgiving school play, but it scares everyone when it makes the covered parts of Louise invisible on stage! They decide to try out all the things in the drawer to see if they are magic too. They learn that the boots are seven-league boots, and find some lost jacks in the metal box, which has a picture of a fruitcake on it. They use the boots to go to Mexico, where they meet Pilar and her donkey Pepe, and use the gloves to help her make straw placemats to sell. When they return, they have lost the gloves, but they accidentally figure out how to use the mirror, which shows them Pilar's grandmother selling the mats. They go back to Mexico to see Pilar and look for the gloves, which they find on Pepe's ears. Pilar helps them bargain for somethings in the market, and teach Pilar how to make fancier mats. When they get home, they realize they've lost Louise's father's compass, but they find it in the box. Katy's mother explains that the things in the dresser belong to Aunt Martha, who gave Katy a "magic" rattle when she was a baby that made her stop crying. They drop the key in sewer drain by accident, and fail to retrieve it with a magnet and string, but eventually find it in the magic box, just in time for a visit from Aunt Martha, who wanted her things back.

The Wishing Tree

One evening in November, a talking cat named Puss leaves the company of a woman in Prospect Park near a mysterious-looking beech tree and a mockingbird and follows Brian and Peggy home. When they try to return the cat to the woman the next day, they lose track of him. The mockingbird tells them to go inside the tree to find the cat. They get sucked in through a knot hole and have to dig their way out. When they do, they find the cat and discover that it is spring and go swimming in a pool with a waterfall, where they find a box that's rusted shut. They see a castle in the distance, and the cat promises to take them to visit later. They go back into the tree and emerge in Prospect Park. Brian and Peggy go back to the park to try to get the magic tree to open the box. After they see the woman having a magic picnic on a tablecloth in the snow, the mockingbird helps them open the box, which contains a golden key that opens any lock, and introduces them to the woman, whose name is Annie. She is homeless. The cat wakes Brian and Peggy during the night to go back to the castle, where the cat searches for something until he is caught by a giant named Fred, who turns out to be friendly. He has a hard time feeding himself as a giant, especially since Puss lent his magic tablecloth to Annie. Fred lets Brian and Peggy eat cherries from the trees in his garden because they are too small for him to eat. The mockingbird arrives asking for help for Annie. They all go back through the tree, which returns Fred to his proper size, and find that Annie has hurt her ankle. She decides to go back to Fred's castle so they can both use the tablecloth. Puss goes home with Brian and Peggy.

A Witch in the House

The Witch at the Window

The Witch and the Ring

Witch's Broom

The Witch's Buttons

Sandy James loses a coat button. When her friend Janet Kramer gives her a bone button shaped like a pilgrim man from her grandmother's button bag, she finds out that the button is really a man named Silas, who has been turned into a button by a witch named Betsy. When a suspicious cat steals the button, Sandy and Janet follow it to an old house, where they see the witch change Silas back into a person. They eat some some apples stolen from the witch, and accidentally turn invisible. After Sandy plays tricks on her classmate Jerry, they both become visible using some of Betsy's witch's brew. Silas, angry with Betsy, steals most of her button collection and turns Betsy into a button, selling her to Sandy's father. Sandy's baby sister Lisa likes Betsy as a button, but Betsy wants to be changed back, so Sandy and Janet use some extra potion on her, and Betsy makes a replacement button for Lisa. The next day, Sandy and Lisa discover that the witch's house has burned down, but in the chimney they find a brass box covered in a leafy feathery pattern, containing the best buttons from Betsy's collection: a faceted black button, a shiny red button, and a pearly white button. They find that the black one grants wishes, the white one is a tiny flying ship, and the red one answers questions. Witch Betsy shows up and takes the buttons away again, letting them keep the chest and presenting them with a mysterious button of their own.

Witch's Cat

The Witch's Garden

The Would-Be Witch

Wrong Way Around Magic


My experiences with and thoughts on Ruth Chew's books:

Ruth Chew's books are at the youngest end of the spectrum of children's books that I read. I rediscovered Ruth Chew's books when I found a couple of them while shopping for used books, and all the memories came back. I found I could remember individual characters, scenes, and events from some of the stories I had read when I was much much younger. These books are short chapter books (about 120 pages) illustrated beautifully by the author.

I have noticed that the type of magic Ruth Chew writes about is fairly consistent, and fairly consistently appealing to a young imagination. All her stories involve one or more of the following themes or ideas: size or shape changing, flying, a magic object that behaves unpredictably, a misfit witch or wizard, being in a different time or place, and/or talking to and making friends with animals. The protagonists are always a brother and a sister, or two friends, who share the adventure. Often they live in New York City.

There do seem to be two distinct categories of books among her works. There are the kind which are full of magical happenings, and there are the kind which involve no magic except for a trip back in time. The books in this second category are more historical and educational in nature. This category includes the books Last Chance for Magic, Royal Magic, Summer Magic, Magic of the Black Mirror, Trapped in Time and Wrong Way Around Magic.  Then there's Baked Beans for Breakfast aka The Secret Summer.  This book has absolutely no magic at all - it's just about two kids who run away from home.  Arguably, freedom is its own kind of magic...

One thing I really like about Ruth Chew's books is that there is always a tidy plot. There is a friend to be made or a problem to be solved. However, the plot is never such that everything goes back to normal at the end of the book: there is always something gained at the end of the story. The last page of every book seems to wink and say, "Now, wasn't that worthwhile?"

A note to the excessively protective or politically correct: Yes, Ruth Chew did write about witches and wizards and covens and broomsticks and black cats. Have no fear of these witches. If anything, they will teach young readers the values of friendship, independence, and self-esteem, since that's what the books are really about.

Share your thoughts

Send email about Ruth Chew to mail at ruthchew.com.

Books by Ruth Chew

  • Baked Beans for Breakfast
  • Do-it-yourself Magic
  • Earthstar Magic
  • The Enchanted Book
  • The Hidden Cave
  • Last Chance for Magic
  • The Magic Cave
  • The Magic Coin
  • Magic in the Park
  • Magic of the Black Mirror
  • Mostly Magic
  • No Such Thing As a Witch
  • Royal Magic
  • Second Hand Magic
  • The Secret Summer 
  • The Secret Tree-House 
  • Summer Magic
  • Trapped in Time
  • The Trouble with Magic 
  • Wednesday Witch
  • What the Witch Left
  • The Wishing Tree
  • A Witch in the House
  • The Witch at the Window
  • The Witch and the Ring
  • Witch's Broom
  • The Witch's Buttons
  • Witch's Cat
  • The Witch's Garden
  • The Would-Be Witch
  • Wrong Way Around Magic


Note: The Hidden Cave and The Magic Cave are the same book, as are The Secret Summer and Baked Beans for Breakfast.

Books illustrated by Ruth Chew

  • Shark Lady: True Adventures of Eugenie Clark by Ann McGovern
  • Mystery of the Ghost Bell by Val Abbot
  • Three Cheers for Polly by Carol Morse
  • The Questers by E. W. Hildick
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Site last updated: 1 January 2009