The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit

From the back cover:
It’s startling enough to have a Phoenix hatch in your house, but even more startling when it reveals you have a magic carpet on the floor. Conceited it may be, but the Phoenix is also good-hearted, and obligingly accompanies the children on their adventures through time and space—which, magic being what it is, rarely turn out as they were meant…

The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) is the second book in the trilogy that begins with Five Children and It. It’s November now and the children—Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and baby brother “the Lamb”—are back at home in Camden Town. One day, after a small fire ruins their nursery carpet, their mother buys a new one from which emerges a shiny yellow egg. And when that egg falls into the fire, a talking Phoenix is hatched who informs them that the new carpet is actually magic and can take them wherever they’d like to go.

As with the first book in the trilogy, most of the story is comprised of the wishes the children make and their often unexpected outcomes. They wish to go abroad, for example, so the carpet takes them to visit a topless tower in France, where Robert promptly gets stuck on a window ledge. On another occasion, the cook accidentally accompanies them on a trip to a sunny shore and ends up being worshipped by the natives. Other wishes involve visits to India and a plethora of Persian cats.

What’s different this time is that more of the wishes are linked. When the children wish to do a bit of good, they find themselves back in France, where they find the rightful owners of the treasure hidden in the tower. And when a would-be burglar is arrested on suspicion of having stolen said Persian cats, the children rescue him from jail and convey him to the sunny shore, whereupon he promptly falls in love with the cook and they get married on the spot. The emphasis on helping people makes this installment of the series a little more like The Railway Children, which still remains my favorite Nesbit book.

While the adventures are fun—my very favorite is not a wish at all, but a visit the children make with the Phoenix to a fire insurance company who uses his likeness for their logo—Nesbit’s writing is really the main draw here. It’s warm, observant, and clever simultaneously, eliciting many a giggle. I love this evocative line about a cast-aside bit of correspondence:

”The letter… lay on the table, drinking hot bacon fat with one corner and eating marmalade with the other.”

That line not only conjures a vivid mental picture, but tells you something about the letter’s recipients, as well. And, indeed, the characterization of the children is more defined in this second outing, with the two eldest (Cyril and Anthea) showing signs of increased maturity. Nesbit never idealizes the children—“The children were not particularly handsome, nor were they extra clever, nor extraordinarily good. But they were not bad sorts on the whole.”—and their imperfections are what make them likeable. When they discover that sometimes things can get worn out through striving to please, one gets the sense that they’ve learned an Important Lesson about consideration without it coming across as some sort of moral.

Though less famous, The Phoenix and the Carpet is actually better than the first book in the trilogy, and I am definitely looking forward to the third and final installment.

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