Five Children and It is a 1902 children’s fantasy novel by E. Nesbit, and the first in a trilogy of books about concerning the core five children. The book tells the story of Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and their baby brother Lamb, and how they find a Psammead (a sand-fairy) after they move to the countryside, who agrees to grant the children one wish every day. The plot consists of a series of adventures concerning those wishes.
Despite the immense fame of E. Nesbit, before this book I had actually never read any of her works. This made me particularly excited to finally read something of hers. Despite my awareness of her, however, and the fact that she wrote children’s novels, I had no idea what to expect from this story.
The thing that struck me first about the story is its tone. The novel has a very strong narratorial presence, who likes to address the child reader directly. In these addresses, the narrator tends to be quite conspiratorial, sharing secrets with the child reader that adults wouldn’t usually tell them. I love this tone in the novel. Because of its confident presence, the tone immediately fills the reader with a sense of trust in the narrator and their ability to tell an entertaining story. This allows you to settle down and stop worrying about whether the story will be any good or not, the narrator has it covered. Furthermore, the conspiratorial nature of it was charmingly nostalgic for me, as I could very well imagine how a younger me would have fallen in love with the feeling of sharing a secret with the book that adults weren’t to know about. I wish I had read this book as a child, but I am very glad that I did so now.
The second thing that struck me about this novel is how well it handles having four protagonists (the Lamb, being a baby, doesn’t really count as a protagonist despite being included in the title). I was initially worried that an attempt to have so many characters would mean that either some would get side-lined or that no one would be fleshed out properly. I need not have worried, for the structure of the novel does wonders for helping with this. Because the story is structured as a series of adventures, it means that each child can take centre stage in their turn, meaning that no child is side-lined and that each one is fleshed out properly.
It is also striking how progressive the story is in its portrayal of gender. Two of the four children are girls, and they have an equal share of the spotlight as the boys do. Moreover, the novel has a consistent interest in the notion of being a general or leader, and that title is passed around all of the children (depending on who is being focused on in the adventure) evenly, rather than being something that is only applied to the boys. This makes for a far more progressive portrayal of gender than other novels from the time (for instance, Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie, which I hope to write a review of soon).
The plot of the novel is equally masterful to the novel’s handling of its characters. Firstly, the bite-sized nature of the discrete adventures makes the novel fantastic for child readers. Secondly, the adventures themselves are similar enough in their structure for the stories to feel like they are part of the same story (avoiding that feeling of not knowing what to expect from the next story that makes short story collections harder to read) without being so similar as to become boring. In fact, it’s very fun to read how the stories can go in wildly different directions despite following the same structure.
The novel also manages to be that rare breed of novels that is simultaneously wildly entertaining and immensely thought-provoking. The novel features a consistent meditation on wishes as they relate to human evolution. In the Stone Age, the Psammead says, children all wished for meat to eat. In the modern day, wishes have become so complex that the children have a hard time figuring out what to wish for. However, despite this apparent difference in wishes, it is notable that virtually all of the stories feature attempting to get food as their primary conflict. When the children wish to be beautiful, for instance, they are no longer recognised by their maid, meaning they can’t come in for dinner. Perhaps if the children followed the Psammead’s advice and wished for food they would have been happier than with what they did wish for; at the same time, one could easily argue that the children would have been far more bored in that instance.
It’s clear to me that the conclusion of this review is an easy one to write. Five Children and It is a fantastic novel by a master storyteller, and one which I would recommend to children and adults alike.