Five Children and It tells the story of Robert, Anthea, Cyril and Jane and their baby brother, known affectionately as the Lamb. While holidaying in the country, their parents are both unexpectedly called away for various reasons, leaving the children to entertain themselves all summer. On the first day, they go to play in an old gravel pit and there they uncover a mysterious creature: a Psammead. These sand fairies have the ability to grant wishes which will last only until sunset. However, the old saying that you should be careful what you wish for proves true, and things often don’t work out quite as the children plan as their summer suddenly becomes much less dull and far more fraught with adventure.
There are so many things in this book which I find irresistible. First and foremost, I love the way that the world of the five children is completely conventional with the exception of one strange and magical thing: the Psammead. In fact, the world is so ordinary that the story seems almost believeable. Although the Psammead grants one wish a day for the children, everything else happens exactly as it would without the magical element. Thus when the children wish to be as beautiful as the day, neither their little brother nor the servants recognise them and they have to beg for food from neighbouring houses and they frequently get into trouble when their escapades keep them out past supper time. Even their wish that the servants won’t notice whatever they wish for, an attempt to avoid getting into trouble, only leads to more disaster and scoldings. In fact, the children’s wishes usually either don’t work out as they might have hoped or lead them into unforeseen scrapes from which they must extricate themselves without being able to explain to any grown ups about the magical happenings which have resulted in these strange situations. This makes for a far more satisfying book, in my opinion. A book that simply chronicled the successful wishes about a group of children might be entertaining if it were well written, but it would be fairly one dimensional. However, a book about wishes that backfire and wishes that aren’t necessarily what you intended is an engaging idea with endless possibilities. The pleasure in reading Five Children and It comes not so much from seeing the children enjoy the results of their wishes but in watching them deal with the unexpected but inevitable consequences of those wishes.
The story is brought to life by E. Nesbit’s wonderful narrative voice which permeates the book. She adopts a conspiratorial tone, as though she is letting the reader in on a big secret which makes the story feel even more special. Her humorous asides on every subject are a joy to read and can be appreciated just as much by adults as by children. She passes judgement on the children, on the adults around them and on grown ups outside the world of the book, but she does so in a way that is never condemning although it is accurate and astute. She invites the reader to share these opinions and so thoroughly draws you into the narrative.