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A Second Look: Five Children and It

By Lloyd Alexander

I was well into middle age before I met the Psammead (“Sammyadd” as the children call it). I wish I had met it sooner so that I could have enjoyed it longer — no, cancel that. Wishes may come true, disastrously so.

Instead, I’ll only say that I’m grateful to have met this grumpy, testy, much put-upon Sand-fairy when I did. Reading Five Children and It late is better than never reading it at all. I don’t mean that as an adult I appreciated its wry humor and subtle digs more than a young person. True, as with every great book, the more we look, the more we see. The books we love get better as we get older. The words haven’t changed. We have. Sometimes, we come to love a book only after many readings.

Five Children and It CoverThis is not the case with E. (for “Edith”) Nesbit. Like all her books, it enchants us immediately. Humor often doesn’t age well; what makes us howl with laughter one year can make us yawn the next. Five Children and It was published more than eighty years ago, the first of a trilogy includingThe Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet. For me, it remains one of the most gloriously funny stories written for any age. The hard part: deciding which chapter is funniest; or, meeting the Psammead, what I myself would wish for.

Like the children, I have from time to time wished to be handsome, rich beyond the dreams of avarice, to soar on my own pair of wings. Ordinary, everyday wishes. One episode, though, does strike a special note with me.

Remembering my boyhood box of toy soldiers, knights on horseback, the cardboard castle that one of my aunts gave me for Christmas instead of the traditional socks and underwear — yes, I did wish those tiny figures could spring into full-sized life. Fortunately, they never did.

The children weren’t so lucky. Rooted out of its burrow, grumbling, full of sarcastic remarks, the Sand-fairy granted all their wishes in the most specific — and hilarious — terms. They are besieged by medieval warriors, captured by Indians, entangled with irate police — the laughter doesn’t quit. Which, then, is funniest? We don’t have to choose. E. Nesbit gives them all to us, for which I thank her.

I must also thank her for something else: her voice. That is, her tone, her personality. E. Nesbit was born in Queen Victoria’s England in 1858. But how bright and high-spirited her work is in comparison with so many typical children’s books of her day. The difference, say, between lemonade and molasses. A lot of Victorian children’s writers give off a sort of mealy-potato quality: much rolling of eyes heavenward; children dying beautifully of some unidentified (but not messy) ailment. But E. Nesbit has a freshness, tartness, without gushing or talking down. Today’s writers owe her a debt. We are modern thanks largely to her. As much as anyone, perhaps more, she helped us to find our twentieth-century voices.

I don’t think she realized how well she taught us. I doubt that she even realized how important, and how marvelous, her children’s books were. She thought of herself, first and foremost, as a serious novelist and poet for adults. The books for children were minor amusements or means of putting food on the table.

But the adult works are only dimly remembered, if at all. The children’s books — including other gems, such as The Story of the Treasure SeekersThe Wouldbegoods, and The New Treasure Seekers — will never be forgotten.

Only in books for young people did E. Nesbit find her true voice — a voice that came from her own remarkable and colorful personality. She was, in her own life, free-spirited, unconventional, eager for new ideas; her temperament spiced by the intellectual ferment of her age. She was modern then; she is modern now.

And she is, I think, wise as well as witty. I don’t read Five Children and It as instructing us to be content with our lot in life and cautioning us against wishing, yearning, dreaming. No, on the contrary. It only warns us — a warning we all need urgently — not to be silly, not to wish foolishly. If anything, it tells us that our deepest wishes come true only by our own intelligence and our own efforts.

The Psammead knew exactly what it was doing.

From the May/June 1985 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

About Lloyd Alexander

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