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18 August 2010

Book Review: Five Children and It

Five Children and ItE. Nesbit
Nesbit is the grandmother of children's fantasy literature. Written in 1902, Five Children and It can be considered to have inspired many who came later, including Edward Eager, whose Tales of Magic series owes a great debt to Nesbit (this Eager freely admits) 
The book shows its age but it is much more accessible than the other books I've read that she penned. Five siblings find a creature who will grant one wish a day and madcap hilarity ensues, replete with political incorrectness and references that are not now common knowledge. None of this gets in the way of enjoyment, however (though knowledge that the word "slut" was more commonly used to mean "slatternly" and "lazy" in the early 20th century might be useful) 

Nesbit's voice is entertaining, whimsical and slightly snide. For example, when the children meet the creature it introduces itself as a "Psammead." The creature says, "You mean to tell me seriously you don't know a Psammead when you see one?" "A Sammyadd? That's Greek to me," says one of the children. "So it is to everyone," said the creature sharply. 

She also launches into off-subject asides that are either tiresome or diverting, depending on one's mood at the time. For example; 

Everyone began to talk at once. If you had been there you could not possibly have made head or tail of the talk, but these children were used to talking 'by fours', as soldiers march, and each of them could say what it had to say quite comfortably, and listen to the agreeable sound of its own voice, and at the same time have three-quarters of two sharp ears to spare for listening to what the others said. That is an easy example in multiplication of vulgar fractions, but, as I daresay you can't do even that, I won't ask you to tell me whether 3/4 x 2 = 1 and 1/2, but I will ask you to believe me that this was the amount of ear each child was able to lend to the others. Lending ears was common in Roman times, as we learn from Shakespeare; but I fear I am getting too instructive. 

Overall, a lovely dalliance. 

And, just because I'm also currently reading Narnia, I must express my frustration with the hold that the series has over children's literature. In the Nesbit biography on the front flap, Nesbit is described thusly; "One of her most admired abilities as a writer is the combination - often with more than a pinch of humour - of a real-life situation with elements of magical fantasy. Five Children and It is perhaps the most famous of her books to display this Narnia-like combination." 

Do be reminded that Five Children and It was published starting in 1901. Lewis didn't start the Narnia series until 1949. If anything, the Narnia series displays a Nesbit-like combination. 

That is all. As you were. 

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