There’s a sort of mindset you have to put yourself in when you tackle some of the children’s classics. I’ve come to this conclusion after being part of this challenge for nine months, so I must be a slow learner. It doesn’t apply to all of the books I’ve read, but it does apply to most of those written in the period 1930-1950. There’s a sort of suspension of belief, a need to be jollied along with the tale, and an understanding that children were just, well, different then. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s just style. But it seems that readers of Five Children and It are expected to be wide-eyed at the adventures of these kids. It is set squarely in a world where five children, from about 12 years to a baby, can be left in the care of the housemaid (who will feed them and make sure they are in bed at the right time) while the parents go off on important business. I suppose it’s not really different from leaving kids with a nanny or au pair now. Maybe it’s me that ‘s being naive. And to be fair, I had almost the same sort of freedom to explore and get up to childish mischief that these kids have. Maybe my reaction is just admission that the world has changed beyond those cosy days, or at least our exposure to the media has made it so. Enough of my ramblings, what about the book?
What I like most about this book is the way the children can have just one wish granted by the fairy each day. This divides the stories up into nice neat adventures, which tend not to spill over into another day. Great for bedtime reading. The wishes are granted by It, a Sand-fairy, otherwise known as a Psammead, that the children find in a nearby gravelpit (not filled with water as all of ours are these days), The trouble is, what to wish for. The saying “be careful what you wish for, it might come true” is powerfully illustrated by the way the Psammead grants their wishes, and the consequences are not at all what the children expect. It takes time for them not to wish without intending it, and to wish for something that will actually do them some good. Happily, the effects of the wish wear off at sunset, but the four of them (thankfully the baby is often left out of the adventure through one device or other) often go hungry through missing their dinner and tea due to the effects of the wish.
Just to clarify, during the first half of the twentieth century it was common in England (especially southern England) for people to have dinner (a cooked meal) as the midday meal. They would then have tea, usually a cold meal with sandwiches, or bread and butter and various extras, plus a drink, hot or cold (e.g. tea) in the late afternoon or early evening. Grown ups might have luncheon (or lunch) as a small meal at midday, and then a cooked meal (dinner) in the evening, often a formal meal. Either might have supper (a snack with a hot drink) a little before bedtime. These days it is more usual for everyone to have lunch and dinner, or just unnamed meals as they happen. Some of us have lunch, tea and supper. Standards have slipped!
This is worth stating because like most children’s stories of the era, meals and the food they consume (or not) feature prominently. And dinner is nowhere near sunset, which is the critical time of day for our protagonists.
Once I got into these stories I started to really enjoy them. I thought the boys were well characterised, but I never really got the hang of which girl was which. A hangover from the age, perhaps? Enid Blyton got over this by making the girls somewhat stereotypical, the tomboy and the dainty one, but since I was a tomboy (you never guessed?) that was fine by me. I still wanted to be the dainty one! The way the wishes are granted are great fun, and probably gives ample opportunity for chatting about “what would you wish for?” and even more importantly “how would the Psammead grant it?”
I know I read this as a child, but I couldn’t remember it at all, apart from the existence of The Lamb (the baby). There are more books about the Five by E E Nesbit, but I didn’t read them as a child, and I don’t feel the need to read them now either. Five Children and It is an enjoyable read, but one is enough.
Read as part of the Pre-1960s Classic Childrens Book Challenge
PS When I was a gal Ms Nesbit was E E – it seems these days she’s listed as E, or E (Edith). She also wrote The Railway Children (which I loved) and The Phoenix and the Carpet, which I also have fond memories of. I don’t think I’ll go back!