LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Five Children and It’s Instruction

on April 1, 2013 9:01pm

In the introduction of Five Children and It, Quentin Blake emphasizes E. Nesbit’s (or Mrs. Hubert Bland’s) focus on entertaining the child reader instead of bettering or instructing the child reader. Blake says,“I suspect that the main purpose of many books written in the nineteenth century was to improve their young readers; with E. Nesbit, by contrast, you feel that she was eager to tell you something interesting and entertaining” (v). This concept is one we’ve seen some other writers in this class try to adopt as well.

I read the introduction after I finished the novel, and I literally laughed out loud when I came to the sentence above because throughout the entire book, I could only focus on the author’s attempts at concealing her instruction. The entire premise of the book is that a few children siblings have access to any wish they want and are repeatedly punished when their wish is too extravagant or impractical. Then, the next day, they have another chance to make a better thought-out wish. The Psammead, the fairy-like creature the children stumble upon that grants their wishes, outright says, “I can’t think why you don’t wish for something sensible – something to eat or drink, or good manners, or good tempers” (167). If that isn’t explicit direction to the child reader, then I don’t know what would be.


I also saw the same types of little snippets of instruction about how to be a “proper British child” in this book as I did in books like The Water Babies. The narrator proposes in Five Children and It that“…it was quite right that [the baker’s son] should be taught that English boys mustn’t use their feet when they fight, but their fists” (170).

This book just strengthened my opinion that children’s literature is impossible without trying to moralize or instruct the reader (not that I’m trying to give a bad rep to children’s lit authors, I believe the same of adult literature authors).


4 responses to “Five Children and It’s Instruction

  1. Abigail Davis says:

    I was also entertained by the fact that E. Nesbit’s focus in the book was supposedly to entertain the child reader rather than instruct them, a goal that was apparently immediately thrown out the window. Not that the book wasn’t entertaining, I actually liked it a lot more than I expected to! But it did try to impart quite a few lessons throughout the children’s misfortunes, the chief lesson being be careful what you wish for. There were some other lessons imparted such as good looks aren’t everything and you never know what you’ve got until it’s (almost) gone. Overall I didn’t really mind the instructional aspect of the stories; I never felt that I was being brow beaten with morality like I did with “The Water Babies”. I do agree that there were aspects of how to be a “proper British child” in “Five Children and It”; my favorite lesson was dealt to Jane when Lamb was briefly grown up. Jane is attempting to help keep Lamb from leaving them for town when Lamb quite seriously informs her that “little girls should be seen and not heard.” (113). This rule obviously doesn’t apply to the two boys though, as Cyril then manages to appease Lamb partially by using a “man to man” tone to reason with him. Clearly the girls, at least in the eyes of this grown up Lamb, who is admittedly a bit of a jerk, are worth less than boys and thus are less respected. There were also some interesting observations in this scene about what is proper for the “grown up” British man. Lamb wants to be addressed with his real name, doing away with childhood monikers. He has a bike, which seems to be a marking of his age as Robert understands: “Of course Robert understood at once that if the Lamb had grown up he must have a bicycle.” (114).

  2. heatherhalak says:

    It is interesting how in the introduction of Five Children and It, Quentin Blake proposes that Nesbit was in fact disinterested in teaching children lessons and morals, because I feel that the work definitely operates as a carrier of these ideals. In each chapter, the children learn a lesson, no matter how small. They first learn that beauty is not all that great, that wealth cannot get them much, and that they do in fact want their little brother. They also learn to be more careful with their words, especially the word “wish” in specific. These lessons are not as didactic in comparison with works such as Kingsley’s The Water Babies, however, it does seek to teach children lessons, whether these are big or small. In my opinion, the work seeks to discipline the children in thought (they were granted whatever wish they thought of, therefore they had to be very careful) and in word (Jane uses the word “wish” very often to express the verb “want” and had to train herself out of this habit). The work also seeks to help the children, and readers, to appreciate what they are given in life such as siblings, parents, and what they are provided with such as money. One often thinks that in fantasy, anything can happen and that there are no rules. However, in Nesbit’s work, there is a plethora of rules such as the wishes ending at sunset and not being allowed to wish for more than one thing in one day. The amount of wishes granted also depends on the mood of the Psammead and what he felt like doing that day. One would think that fantasy allows for an element of freedom, but in Five Children and It, the children are almost slaves to their own wishes and are forced to learn the consequences of their actions.

  3. I too find it rather hilarious that Nesbit attempted to pull the wool over the eyes of her readers by qualifying her blatant attempts to sway the opinion and behaviors of her readership. Children’s literature, regardless of the author’s initial intentions when writing, will always act as a type of propaganda because of the nature of their audience. While some books may have the intention of merely serving as entertainment, they ultimately act as models of behavior for children due to the unavoidable impressionability that comes with being a child. However, in Nesbit’s case I believe it is simply impossible to suggest that this author did not knowingly use her novel as a medium to impart her beliefs upon children. The two examples you bring up are fantastic instances of Nesbit trying to press her morals upon her young audience. In addition, the very plot of her book is propagandistic in its own right. The children are given the opportunity to wish for whatever they desire, thus opening up a platform to analyze the materialistic desires of man. Nonetheless, whenever the children wish for one of these materialistic qualities, the wish backfires on them. This plot acts as a twofold attack on the psyche of a child. Firstly, Nesbit is imparting the age old proverb of “be careful what you wish for” onto her readers. More interestingly though, the author is suggesting to these children that materialistic wants and desires will eventually lead to misfortune. With this in mind Nesbit can introduce her novel in anyway she desires: however, there is no denying that she includes bits of her own moral beliefs into her work.

  4. How far can one go with this vein of thought? Where do we draw the line? How far can we take the argument of critiquing an author for moralizing or trying to impart some lesson? Is it really possible to write literature, any literature, whether for adults or children, without infusing it with some sort of theme? In this discussion we’ve been calling them morals or lessons, reflecting the fact that it is an adult writing for a child and there is then a power play at work, but really aren’t they just themes? I guess we have to ask the question what is literature; for in part isn’t literature a mirror of reality, a place where we can see within ourselves and beyond ourselves? A space that allows us to learn about what it means to be human, and how to be better humans, whether we learn that by example (virtuous characters) or by opposition (bad examples)? It seems that to write literature, is to write narratives that are both part of you and outside of you, and it seems impossible to expect an author to not reflect their own way of thinking and belief system into their work. If an author is of a certain religious background, should they be expected to write a story that either opposes or disregards their own beliefs so that they won’t be accused of moralizing and imposing? If we expect a work to be completely stripped of any moral sway or inclination, will we ever be able to create literature? If we push so far and critique so much, won’t we get to a point where we say that all literature is in fact impossible? And really what’s so bad about imparting lessons, with providing models of behavior, especially in the way most of the authors we’ve studied have done, perhaps excluding The Water Babies? We need guidance in life, and sometimes the only place to find it is in the pages of a book.

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