Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I Wish For...

Title: Five Children and It
Author: E. Nesbit

I didn’t really read much children’s literature as a girl. Books like Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan…I didn’t read any of these until I was over the age of 18. As a girl, I was too busy reading what I then felt were “mature” books (i.e., Sweet Valley High, The Baby-Sitter’s Club, and -- god help me -- V.C. Andrews novels). I usually don’t feel guilty about having waited so long to read children’s classics, but in the case of E. Nesbit I do. Why? Simply because if I had read her as a girl, I have the feeling that her books would have become some of my “best friend” books -- you know, the ones that you read and re-read so often that they become a part of you. And I can’t help wondering if I would’ve grown up differently with a piece of Nesbit inside me.

Five Children and It tells the story of five siblings -- one of which is a mere baby -- who move from the London to the country and, while digging a hole to Australia one day, discover that they have happened upon a sand-fairy, or a Psammead. Being children, they accept this strange creature rather easily, and soon discover that it has the power to grant wishes. The Psammead also tells them about many other fascinating things as well -- such as the origin of dinosaur bones and why children build sand castles -- but the wishes are really the important thing.

And thus the adventures begin.

The Psammead can only grant one wish per day. Naturally, the children never get quite what they wished for, or if they do get what they wished for, they soon realize that it’s not quite what they wanted after all. It’s a common lesson, but Nesbit tells it in a charming manner, and the effects of some of the wishes are really rather unsettling, such as when the children wish to be “as beautiful as the sky.” The Psammead does become rather impatient them at times, wondering why they don’t simply wish to be perfectly good or for something to eat, sensible things like that.

Speaking of the Psammead, it’s an adorable creation, and if I ever saw it incarnated as a stuffed animal, I would snatch it up. I won’t spoil you the joy of reading Nesbit’s own description of the creature or of seeing the illustrations for yourself, but let’s just say that the Psammead reminded me very much of Popples. And I loved Popples.

People often discuss Tolkien’s influence on C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. I don’t see how anyone could cite Tolkien as Lewis’ major influence once they’ve read Nesbit. The four older children in Five Children almost directly parallel the four Pevensies, even to the extent that Robert, the second boy, seems to be just a little darker -- and yet more special -- than the other children, just as Edmund was Lewis’ most complex and intriguing character. Lewis and Nesbit are also alike in that their books merge the ordinary and the fantastic in a way that Tolkien never did. But most importantly, the books just sound the same. The cadences of their language are very similar, as are the little asides that both authors make, commenting on the action to the reader. I don’t have either text on hand, so I can’t provide direct quotations, but a sentence like, “And if you had spent all day trudging along a dusty road with little more in your stomach than a dry crust of bread and some scummy water, I have no doubt you would have felt rather cross as well,” could very easily come from either the pen of Nesbit or Lewis. I don't see Tolkien writing something like that.

To wrap this comparison up and to give it a point -- especially for Americans who may not have heard of Nesbit before -- if you love C.S. Lewis, I would be very much surprised if you didn’t love Nesbit as well. (Well, unless you love Lewis simply for the alleged Christian allegory, because Nesbit’s world is rather more chaotic and lacks the clear distinction between good and evil, but that’s another topic altogether…)

If Nesbit’s writing has any fault, it wasn’t one that I could discover while reading Five Children. But I have the feeling that her books may all rather be of the same note. The edition I had combined this book with The Enchanted Castle, and since I was so delighted with Five Children upon finishing it, I then simply turned the page and dove right into Enchanted Castle. That was a mistake. The respective children of the two books were similar enough that I really didn’t get the sense that I was reading a different story. They all blurred together and left me feeling rather hazy about the atmosphere in Enchanted Castle. It simply didn’t come as alive for me as Five Children had. But I don’t think this problem would exist if I had given myself time between the two stories. As it is, I decided to put Enchanted Castle aside and read something else before starting again and really letting myself sink into the story. I think I’ll enjoy it more that way.

Anyway, I really loved Five Children and It. It’s funny, adventurous, enlightening, and even a bit disturbing at times, as all really good children’s literature should be. The illustrations are also quite lovely. And I now firmly believe that no one should go through life without having read at least one E. Nesbit book.

posted by Elizabeth at 8:50 PM


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