Five Children and It by E Nesbit, book of a lifetime: Cheerful, child-centred anarchy

Nesbit's book deals with magic that goes comically wrong when it collides with Real Life
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There was no momentous meeting, no sudden revelation. I don't remember how or when E Nesbit's Five Children and It found its way into our shabby and chaotic North London playroom. It probably belonged to me – I was very fond of spending any book token that came my way at the local bookshop, which had a tiny back room devoted to children's books, and this was a Puffin Classic from the late 1960s with a yellow cover, and intriguing illustrations of children in Edwardian clothes.

There were two pictures I particularly loved – one was of the children with beautiful wings, like angels, and the other showed a smiling maidservant carrying an indignant young man in her arms. The book is about magic, but it was the first fantasy story I had come across that dealt with magic that goes comically wrong when it collides with Real Life. The five children – Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and their baby brother the Lamb – accidentally dig up a peculiar little creature in the gravel pit at the bottom of their garden.

This is the Psammead, pronounced "Sammy-ad", an ancient sand fairy who can grant wishes – but the wishes only last until sunset, and the fallout is always inconvenient. They wish for piles of money, but get weird old coins that none of the local shops will accept. The girls wish they could all be "as beautiful as the day", but when it happens, the people looking after the children (like all the best adventures, the parents are safely out of the way) think they are strangers and refuse to give them any dinner. They accidentally wish the troublesome baby would grow up, and he grows into an odious grown-up toddler with a moustache.

In my favourite chapter, the children wish they could fly, and there are wonderful descriptions of how it feels to have wings, to soar far above the countryside. All these things are exactly what I would have wished for myself – and despite their antiquated clothes, the five siblings were amazingly like my own noisy family of six.

Edith Nesbit, born in 1858, was more than a century older than I was, but the tone of her stories spoke to me directly, and as a writer for children, I have tried to remember how much I appreciated not being talked down to. The cheerful, child-centred anarchy of Five Children and It is still my inspiration and delight. And I would still wish for wings.

Kate Saunders' latest book, 'Five Children on the Western Front', is winner of the Costa Children's Book Award 2014

Comments