Tag Archives: Edith Nesbit

What Five Children and It Did Next

My first event on Monday was learning more about Kate Saunders and her much praised book Five Children on the Western Front, which won last year’s Costa. I’ve not read it yet, nor do I know the Edith Nesbit original stories all that well. I read some, but it was a long time ago.

Kate wrote this sequel to Nesbit’s books for the anniversary of WWI last year. She had long ago worked out that those children were just the right age to be caught up in the war that Nesbit didn’t know about when she created their idyllic, magic, free childhood.

Kate Saunders

As a child Kate felt that E Nesbit spoke directly to her, and she reckons that the author ‘put all the seeds down’ and she simply wrote her book, based on what was already there. Kate’s own teenage son died a few years ago, so she feels the far too early loss of young people very strongly.

She had plans for whom to kill off, but at least one character was saved by book reviewer Amanda Craig, who forced her to rethink. And in Monday morning’s school event, it appears Kate managed to make chair Daniel Hahn cry, which just goes to show how books can affect people.

Writing your last letter home, for if you don’t survive the war, features in Kate’s book (this was the moment my first pen decided it had had enough). She said it’s ‘outrageous that young people are sent away to be killed’ and she found that using magic in her story meant that it wasn’t all about life on the home front, but she was able to let the younger children see what went on in the trenches, while they were trying to help the Psammead.

The one thing that doesn’t translate well to a new book like this is the way Nesbit treated servants. She was very un-pc, and Kate has made a point of being nice and kind to ‘her’ servants, in whatever accents you get.

The audience in the Writers Retreat were fairly young, but they had nevertheless read both Kate’s book and the Nesbit ones, and they came up with some really excellent questions. Kate told them she began writing at nine, and that in twenty years’ time it could very well be one of them who would be talking at the book festival.

On the subject of dramatisations of novels, she feels it’d be hard to get in there and beat War Horse. This former actress once had to pay her son to come to the theatre with her.

Kate had to work hard at not revealing who dies in her book, or the fates of any of the characters. The children kept asking, though. And with war you just can’t have anything but a sad ending. It can’t be avoided. The thing for Kate was that there should be kindness, and there’s a strong sense of right and wrong.

There will be no more sequels of other people’s books for a while now. She wanted her book to be true to the feeling of Edith Nesbit. She compared it to considering rewriting the New Testament, which is something you just wouldn’t do.

Generally Kate doesn’t know what the end will be until she gets there. It’s ‘better to make it up as you go along.’ She needs a good start and then she has to have a shape that she strives for. After that she might rip up chapters (computer fashion) to make her book better.

Paradise House – The Zoo in the Attic

I can’t believe Hilary McKay can write so many short, ‘younger’ books that are possible for an adult to enjoy for their own entertainment! Here is another one; The Zoo in the Attic, which I think is the first in the Paradise House series.

It’s actually very nicely dated. First published in 1995, it has those really old-fashioned black and white illustrations that I would expect to see in a book by Edith Nesbit, say.

The way the house is described is also quite quaint. It made me think of Usborne’s Historical House, where you see what the house once was, and then you get to know it the way it is now, and every stage in between. So, it’s an old and large house almost in the middle of London, which is now divided into flats, in which live various young children, who go on to have little adventures. (Today their poor parents would have been priced out of that kind of home altogether.)

Hilary McKay, The Zoo in the Attic

Danny likes animals. When he can’t have a dog, he is quite happy with the goldfish he is given instead. And so he starts a zoo in the attic. Beetles, spiders, that kind of thing. Plus Oscar the goldfish.

The tenants of the whole house work together in a most un-modern way. It gave me a nice warm feeling, and I’m almost ready to move in. I expect the other five stories are equally nice. In fact, there is a first chapter from the next one, so I know that it will be good, too.

(It’s just the covers again…)

Four Children and It

Edith Nesbit and I have a slight problem. I loved her books once I had discovered them in my childhood library, but I don’t think I ever owned one. And that’s probably why I can’t remember much. Some I do know I read, others I am no longer sure whether it’s because I know the title (which would have been different in translation, anyway) due to Nesbit’s books being so well known, or if I did read them.

I am almost certain I read Five Children and It. But can I recall a name for the Psammead? No, I can’t.

Jacqueline Wilson’s Four Children and It was inspired by Nesbit’s story, rather than being a modern sequel, which is A Good Thing. Some sequels are fine, but this is much better for being a typical Jacqueline Wilson, borrowing the Psammead and – temporarily – Nesbit’s child characters. So don’t read it if you crave more Nesbit.

What I am hoping is that JW fans will now want to read Nesbit’s books, and perhaps also other old classics. The wish to share something with someone you admire is a great way to try new paths.

We have a modern setting of two siblings, Rosalind and Robbie, being forced to spend part of their holiday with their Dad and his new family, with (horrible) stepsister Smash and their halfsister Maudie. On a picnic they encounter (well, dig up) the Psammead, and Rosalind the reader recognises him, and the children end up asking him for wishes.

Much to the parents’ consternation they end up having picnics every day, and disappearing on wishes. Some good, some pretty bad.

They meet Nesbit’s original children, and they meet Jacqueline’s PA Naomi. They didn’t ask for that one, but she does play herself rather nicely in one wish, along with Bob the chauffeur. (I bet she doesn’t ever need to wipe JW off with wet wipes, though…)

Eventually the children learn to like each other, and get on rather better than they did at first. And we learn to be careful what you ask for. You might get it.

Generations of girls

The Bookwitch Upheaval continues. In recent days I’ve been getting all my books from the dusty rows where so many of them have been sitting for far too long, and I am actually putting them in order on actual shelves. Though I do believe that I will run out of shelves before I run out of books. Even putting some doubles in a back row behind the front row. Obviously.

One thing that happens under circumstances like these is that you re-discover books. Not that I forget them or forget that I have them, but they slip from my mind.

I carried all the Ns the other day. I recall Linda Newbery saying how before she was published she had looked in bookshops and felt that there was a space next to Edith Nesbit where Linda’s books could sit. Well, that was true until Patrick Ness came along. He is now piggy in the middle, surrounded by two great ladies.

So, I happened upon this trilogy of Linda’s, that I read quite a few years ago now. They are The Shouting Wind, The Cliff Path and A Fear of Heights.

When I began reading them, I expected the generations to take in both world wars plus something more modern. I was wrong. It starts with WWII and continues with something closer to my generation and finishes with ‘today’. Grandmother, daughter and granddaughter.

The thing is, that at the time I was so taken with Linda’s WWI novels, that I wanted them to go on. And in a way they did, as the grandmother in this trilogy has a connection to Linda’s book Some Other War, set in WWI. So from that point of view I got even more than I thought.

There is something irrationally satisfying about encountering characters again, seeing what’s become of them, and so on. And an honest author lets his/her characters have real lives, which means it’s not always been a bed of roses since the book before. So the reader can be disappointed to hear that someone died rather early, or that the romance/marriage didn’t last. Or the child quarrelled and left home and they stopped speaking. It’s real.

Linda is good at this. Her characters always feel as if I might know them in real life. And this generational series thing could actually be taken a lot further. Start early enough, and it’d be possible to take in a fair bit of recent-ish history.

It’s books like these that will tell future generations what the 20th century was like. You don’t get that from wand-wielding wizards. The trilogy doesn’t seem to be available to buy, and Linda’s website doesn’t list the books either. But if you find them, try them. And definitely start with the Vera Brittain inspired Some Other War. (If only because you’ve found the idea of nursing wounded soldiers quite charming, by watching too much Downton Abbey.)