The Secret Life of Children’s Books: Five Children and It

The Secret Life of Children's Books 1

This BBC programme comes back with a new episode in which it casts a closer look upon children’s fantasy fiction. The episode focuses on Edith Nesbit and its 1902 book Five Children and It which paved the way for the fusion of magic and realism often encountered in children’s literature like the Narnia and the Harry Potter book series.

Samantha Bond takes us on a journey through Nesbit’s life and writing career and shows how the two were inextricably linked across the years. Persevering through personal tragedies such as the death of her father and her sister, Nesbit found inspiration in the simplest of children’s dreams: a fairy granting an abundance of wishes… with a catch. So what if the fairy, the “it”, was the most bizarre of creatures, not so much resembling the hairy leprechaun of the TV adaptation? Nesbit had a vivid imagination, like children do, and her fairy could still teach children that greed has consequences. Her imagination was the fuel to the weird creatures of her books. One of these creatures was the “it”, the sand fairy, also known as Psammead (from the ancient Greek word ψάμμος for “sand” and the nymphesque ending “-ad”). Since illustrations are key to children’s literature, special attention is to be paid to H.R. Millar, the prominent Scottish illustrator, who captured Nesbit’s weird beings on paper.

Nesbit based her characters on people in her life. She had her own family, which included her children and those that her husband had with her once best friend. The structure of this unconventional ménage-à-trois allowed Nesbit to rid herself of household duties and focus on her writing and political activism. Contrary to the victimised figure that one may get from Nesbit’s personal life, she was quite dynamic and assertive in campaigning for actual political reform. The themes in Five Children and It, relevant to children and adults alike, touch upon socio-political issues which aligned with Nesbit’s involvement in the Fabian Society.

A specific event, though, marked a notable difference in Nesbit’s life and writing style: the death of her son Fabian. Nesbit blamed herself for the tragedy and she used her writing as a means to give her son the life he could not have. Five Children and It is different from her previous books, as it was the first one rooted in magic and fantasy rather than realism. In a similar way that the children in the book asked wishes from the fairy, Nesbit used the fairy’s magic to conjure her son back to life. Her later books still involved the surreal and the magical. However, they were more nostalgic and less wishful and not as genre-influential as Five Children and It.

Navigating through Nesbit’s life milestones, the episode shows how her work progressed along with her experiences. Perhaps it does take a personal tragedy to break new ground in one’s career and this may be even more so when one’s life doubles as inspirational material. Perhaps this is the price to pay to walk the fine line between personal stability and pioneering…

The Secret Life of Children’s Books is on BBC Four on 4th July at 22.00.