Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit

We just finished reading Five Children and It by E. Nesbit.  This book was first published in 1902.  I found three of the Five Children books in a secondhand bookstore in Charlottesville, VA. I love the shop so much.  It is everything a used bookstore should be—well-stocked, as quiet as the inside of a closed coffin, orderly, inexpensive.
The shopkeeper is gentle and serene, and she reminds me of my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Jorgenson—statuesque and placid, understated. A slim ring on the left hand, gold filigree earrings peeking through her hair like tints, clean nails with no polish. Her hair hangs in a shiny sheet to her chin.  She smells good—like clean, not like money.  She has foreign currency taped to her cash register because the coins and bills are “interesting and beautiful.” I always feel complicated around her, with my gooped-on eye makeup, my jangling earrings, my deranged zeal for her books, my intense personality humming like a frequency--a high whine that can be felt rather than heard.  (You think I don’t know?  I do know).  I look into her bovine eyes as I stack my books on her counter, and I just want to crawl in her lap and tell her all my problems and make promises about improving myself—about toning it down, and I mean it this time. 
Charlottesville is a beautiful place in general, and once we saw Dave Matthews corralling his children in an ice cream shop downtown as we all stood in line.  Later, my husband and I—both moderate DMB fans—tried to whip up some enthusiasm by cranking up “Satellite” from Under the Table and Dreaming in the car on the ride home.  This is the guy we met, kids!  This guy singing!  Our children were nonplussed.  

Our nine-year-old, Clara, said (and I quote) "Please turn down the chaos.  I'm trying to read."  Nerds, the lot of them.

Their reaction was contrasted with the one they gave the time we saw Andrew Pudewa give a talk on Classical Education in a Modern Age.  As they waited in line to meet him, they could do nothing but wipe their sweaty, itchy palms on their jeans, pace, and mentally plan their greeting to him.  He’s the guy on your DVDs, mom!  HE’S THE GUY!  (Don’t be fooled.  I was equally verklempt).  You might be a homeschooler if...

Back to E. Nesbit.  E. Nesbit was a woman, but I always forget this when I read her books because she sounds just like a man to me.  Not just any man.  This man:

I recently learned that C.S. Lewis considered E. Nesbit a key writing influence.  I like how I wrote that.  It sounds like I recently learned this fact as a result of hunting through some archives in a stately old library, when in reality, I read it on E. Nesbit’s Wiki page five seconds ago.  It gave me some satisfaction, however, because I have always said to myself, “She sounds so C.S. Lewisy...”  And now we know why.

In this book, five children discover a magic sand fairy—a Psammead—in a sandy chalk pit while vacationing in the English countryside.  The sand fairy is a crusty, unobliging little guy, but he is beholden to grant them one wish a day.  The children compile their mental resources to come up with wishes, but the task proves more difficult than they imagine.  Time after time, they fail to foresee the hidden implications of their wishes to be beautiful, rich, grown up.  The narrative voice is hilarious.  Nesbit refers to herself as the writer throughout the story, discussing her limitations as a storyteller and the way she knows kids are going to misinterpret what she is saying, etc.  The Rigdons were twisty with glee at the way she called attention to herself and threatened to burn away the magic shroud of story.  They sensed that her technique was irreverent?  provocative?  I don’t know a good word.  Shady.  Humorously shady.  Like a bad but fun babysitter who lets you make prank calls and eat junk.

Several people have asked me for book recommendations for read alouds, and I never know if the books I like will be crowd-pleasers for other families.  But this book will be.  You’ll like it.  If you like C.S. Lewis’s style (and if you homeschool, I know you do, because reading the Narnia books and loving them is part of the Homeschool Secret Handshake without which we do not let you in), you’ll dig E. Nesbit.  We're currently reading another Nesbit book at The Rigdons' request.  I wanted to read Black Beauty next.  But no.  The Story of the Amulet it is.

Gore Vidal wrote about her in the December 1965 issue of The New York Review of Books.  You are welcome to read his essay, but I forbid you to prefer it over this blog post.  Now go buy some Nesbit from my kindergarten-teacher-shopkeeper.


  1. Well, there you have it. We're reading it next. Wait. Does it exist in audiobook form?

  2. Sounds wonderful! Thanks for posting about this! xo