In the 19th century a new type of children’s novel was born, one where ordinary children encountered magical beings or objects of magical power. “The Water Babies” by Charles Kingsley of 1863 is the earliest of these I know about, but the children in the story are romanticized and very much as the Victorian era saw children rather than as they really are. Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” of 1865 is better, though Carroll’s Alice was a rather odd child, cold and unemotional and perhaps not very realistic either. George MacDonald’s “At The Back Of The North Wind” of 1871 is the next likely candidate, followed by his “The Princess and the Goblin,” but MacDonald’s children were also romanticized.
Edith Nesbit broke new ground with “The Story of the Treasure Seekers” of 1899. Her Bastable family was very realistic. While generally good kids, they got into mischief, had quarrels and temper tantrums, were sneaky around adults, and were not above small lies to get what they wanted. The Bastable books are fine reading, but they are ordinary adventures in an ordinary world. With “The Five Children and It,” Nesbit brought her talent for writing realistic children to the fantasy genre, and it has not looked back since.
Five children: Robert, Anthea, Jane, Cyril, and the family baby, The Lamb, are sent to spend the summer at a house in the country next to a sand pit, which seems to be an open sand mine, no longer in use. They are being cared for by servants — their parents are absent — a classic set-up for adventures. The servants allow them to go off all day to play as long as they bring the baby with them and care for him, which they are willing to do, though he can be tiresome. The sand pit is a magnet, and while digging there they uncover a very odd creature that seems sort of a cross between a fat monkey and a shell-less snail. They are astonished when it speaks to them, and they learn it is a Psammead, or sand fairy, buried in this sand for many centuries and only now awakened. The children learn it can grant wishes, and the Psammead, a very grumpy creature, grudgingly grants them one wish a day, setting up all the adventures in the book. The effects of the wishes will only last until sunset, which as it turns out is a good thing!
When you were a child, what would you have wished for? These children never seem to get any pleasure from their wishes, every one goes wrong somehow, perhaps due to the spite of the Psammead, or simply their own bad judgment. Even a wish for wings that will allow them to fly goes wrong when they decide to steal some food and fly up to the roof of a church to have a picnic, then foolishly fall asleep until the wings are gone and they’re stuck there. Wishing for piles of gold coins doesn’t get them anything they want either, and instead throws them into all kinds of trouble.
There is definitely a moral lesson to be found in each of the adventures, but plenty of exciting and funny moments too, and the characters are appealing, flaws and all. Nesbit wrote three books about these children, each with a different sort of magic in it, and all are excellent. I’ll be rereading the other two soon. Incidentally, though that’s my hardcover copy above, I read this as a free iBook, and found this version a much better conversion than Nesbit’s “The Magic Castle,” reviewed here a while back. Only the illustrations fail, the images are so pixilated as to be unreadable, but the text is fine.