Five Children and It by E. Nesbit: B+

From the back cover:
‘It’ is a Psammead, an ancient, ugly and irritable sand fairy the children find one day in a gravel pit. It grants them a wish a day, lasting until sunset. But they soon learn it is very hard to think of really sensible wishes, and each one gets them into unexpected difficulties. Magic, the children find, can be as awkward as it is enticing.

After reading and really enjoying The Railway Children, I decided that I definitely needed to read more by E. Nesbit. Five Children and It was my first pick, because I’ve been curious about the book for ages. Expect to see more Nebsit after this one!

Five Children and It (1902) actually has some things in common with The Railway Children (1906). It’s obvious from the titles that both feature kids, but more specifically these kids are siblings from the city who are moving into a new house in the country. Both stories are told by a companionable and amusing narrator. In the case of the latter book, the kids meet and help a lot of new people, and a warm, feel-good tone is the result. There is, alas, less of that feeling in Five Children and It, though it’s still an imaginative and entertaining tale.

Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and “the Lamb” (the nickname for the youngest, a two-year-old boy whose given name is Hilary) have just moved into their new house, and are keen to explore. One day, when their mother has gone off to tend to her ailing mother, their wanderings take them to a nearby gravel pit, where they dig and find a strange creature called a psammead, or sand-fairy. The psammead agrees to grant the children one wish per day, the results of which will disappear at sunset, and the majority of the book is made up of their wishes and the usually unpleasant repercussions thereof.

Nothing ever seems to turn out like they hope. When they wish for money, it comes in a form unrecognizable and unaccepted by local merchants. When they wish for wings, they fail to account for how hungry the exertion of flying will make them, and end up stranded on a rooftop after stealing someone else’s dinner. When they wish they lived in a castle, it’s ill-defended and in the midst of a siege. Each time, they attempt to learn from what went wrong and get the best from their next wish, but by the time their mother returns home they’re quite ready to quit with the wishing altogether. If I had to pick a theme for the book, I’d say it’s “be content with your lot.”

What’s really nice about the story is that the kids aren’t idealized at all. In fact, Nesbit says up front that they can be tiresome, and they’re shown being disagreeable often enough. They’re also, however, shown being clever and level-headed, particularly Anthea, the oldest girl. It takes a while for them to emerge as individual characters, though, and I’m still not really sure how to describe Jane, the youngest girl. This is another aspect in which The Railway Children is the superior book, since each of those characters is memorable and distinct. I do think, though, that Anthea and Railway‘s Roberta would like each other very much. In fact, now I kind of want to read fanfic in which they hang out and are sensible together.

In the end, I definitely enjoyed Five Children and It and look forward to reading its two sequels, but it doesn’t supplant The Railway Children as my favorite Nesbit so far.

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