LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Anthea the Feminist

During my research for my final paper, I came across a great article on The Five Children and It entitled “E. Nesbit’s Psammead Trilogy: Reconfiguring Time, Nation and Gender” by Michelle Smith. Among her discussion of other social issues presented by the three books, Smith points out that Anthea’s incessant mothering of her siblings seems to be at odds with Nesbit’s personal “unconventional femininity.” As we discussed in class, Nesbit was an intelligent, socially involved woman, so the narrator’s assertion that Anthea was “meant to be a good housekeeper some day” seems awfully backwards (15).

 

Anthea in ten years. Well, this was 1902, probably five years.

Anthea in ten years. Well, this was 1902, probably five years.

Smith, however, argues that Anthea’s mothering is actually the source of her strength of character. I found this assertion convincing. She thinks the most clearly, has strong moral convictions and an empathetic temperament. She is the favorite of ‘the Lamb,’ which implies that her patience and quality of care are superior to her other siblings. This hyper-feminine personality seems to encourage her siblings to rely on her, and she wastes no time in expressing her opinions on the right and moral path of action in each of their adventures. Being a child, she lacks complete responsibility, but she makes up for it in quick-wittedness. This mature temperament is not due to age – Anthea is actually younger than Cyril.

 

"Mom-substitute, what should we do?"

“Mom-substitute, what should we do?”

This “feminine shift in the parameters of heroism” allows Anthea to remain feminine and motherly while still being the hero. To me, this is extremely forward-thinking for a novel published in 1902. Feminism is by no means a recent development, but women who choose to cultivate femininity and domesticity, especially by being housekeepers like Anthea, do still suffer accusations of being anti-women. The more women who choose to become educated professionals, the more work we do towards bridging the divide, but this doesn’t mean that the 1950’s housewife aesthetic is inherently against the equality of women – it’s just a different lifestyle choice. This statement has become mostly accepted at present, but during Nesbit’s time, women were still working towards the right to vote: Nesbit’s display of a woman who was feminine and heroic without sacrificing for either was undoubtedly ahead of her time.

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The Double Edged Sword: Wishing in Five Children and It (Theme Analysis and Criticism)

Be careful what you wish for…

Five Children and It is a seemingly simple story that shows why people cannot always get what they wish for and if they do, it carries unexpected problems. This theme, however, is a very interesting theme to tackle in a children’s book, especially since children are the demographic most likely to wish for unrealistic things. Children also usually do not weigh the pros and cons of situations and only work toward their idealized goal. In the novel, this idea materializes through the five children’s various wishes, ranging from wanting to be beautiful to wanting to be rich. However, each wish carries unforeseen consequences that always results in the wish providing more harm than good.

“What do you weirdos want now?!”

In my opinion, I think Nesbit included this theme as the ultimate moral of the story. Although morals are often presented at the end of children’s books, I think it was very intelligent of Nesbit to repeatedly convey the moral through different yet similar scenarios. However, I found the execution of the theme to be lackluster. As an adult reading this, I found the constant failings of the children’s wishes to be evident of the theme by the second or third chapter and the following chapters were too repetitive. I think the story would have been best served as a short story to present the characters and theme succinctly and would have avoid the tedium of the book. However, I can see why a child would enjoy the repetitive nature of the book. Nesbit cleverly finds new ways to ruin the wishes and that type of suspense appeals greatly to younger readers.

I don’t even know if I would approach this guy…

Another interesting dimension of the theme is that it does not present the idea of “being careful of what to wish for” as well as it could. Throughout the novel, the Psammead grants the wishes of the children. Although he could be interpreted as a microcosm for the larger idea of wishing for unrealistic goals and objects, I think including the character only aids in presenting the theme to children and fails on a thematic level. On a larger level, using the Psammead downplays the theme a bit because the consequences that often stem from the wishes are completely unexpected and random. Although this can play into the idea that wishing for some things yields completely surprising and undesired consequences, I still think the execution of the character’s ability to grant wishes compromises the theme. I do think the character works wonderfully in entertaining and making the idea more accessible for children, which I think is the greatest strength of the work.

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Five Children and It: An Overlooked Classic

The term classic evokes a certain feeling; it carries with it an air of prestige, as well as a sense of nostalgia. In order to be a classic, a book must be able to stand the test of time. Often, this requires a timeless quality. However, a book can be rooted in its own time but still endure as a classic if it possesses that often intangible “it” factor which captures the heart of the reader. Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It is very distinct, specifically in terms of its setting and time period. The world she creates is incredibly real, with the exception of the mythical Psammead and the wishes it grants. As a result of it’s realistic nature, her world is one that does not transcend borders as well as those explored in other classics. For example, Wonderland and Oz are imaginary places where any child, from anywhere, may imagine themselves exploring. In a world that is entirely imaginary, there are still of course going to be nods to the author’s culture and home, but overall there is a lack of identification with any real place. This makes anything possible; anyone can venture to Wonderland. Not everyone can venture to the sand quarry near their quaint home in the English countryside. The poor, caged-in children of London to whom Nesbit refers in her opening pages are cut off from this specific kind of country living. And while they, of course, can use their imaginations, it can be more difficult to place oneself in a place that is so distinctly real. The reality of it all serves as a barrier, the kind that does not exist in getting to Oz. There are also a number of allusions to the time in which Nesbit was living and writing.  The most common form of transportation was a horse and buggy, people started their mornings using wash basins, and any half decent family had servants to look after their children.  However, its specificity, while perhaps off-putting to some, has not stopped Five Children and It from gaining status as a classic, specifically in England. Yet that popularity did not carry over so much into America.

I had never heard of this book before this class. The only other book on the syllabus which I had never heard of was The Water Babies and, to be honest, I did not find that one to my liking. So I became skeptical of this other unknown “classic.” I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by Five Children and It. Yes, the setting was rather British, and bits of it were a tad dated. I didn’t understand all of the difficulties with the money, knowing nothing about any currency other than that of the good old USA, and I’m sure that there were other bits of the story that went over my head due to differences in cultural capital. But when it comes to the story itself, I was enchanted. The children found a sand fairy, which begrudgingly granted them wishes, and many an adventure ensued. What’s not to like? I feel that the strength of its story and narration eclipse any deficits that may have emerged over the past hundred years.  The fact remains that this book, while a classic in one culture, is very much overlooked in our own. Perhaps its endearing quality didn’t transfer to American audiences, or perhaps the librarians powers of dissuasion really did a number here. But I, for one, really enjoyed this century old book, and would place it on my classics shelf right here in America.

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Origin Mythology in Children’s Stories

     I have always thought it was really interesting to read about the origin of the world or explanations of phenomena that does not match today’s scientific facts and theories.  In the Water-Babies, the reader was exposed to an alternate state of life and what life was like “under the sea.”  In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens the explanation for where babies come is that they are born first as birds on an island of birds and then fly to their future homes to become babies.  This explanation is just as valid as the stork baby story when adults make up untrue explanations for children.  I’m not sure why adults seem keen on telling children more fantastical and unreal versions of the truth, as we have learned in class through reading Golden Age literature and specific cases like Lewis Carroll entertaining children with enchanting lies, but they do.  These lies become stories, and these stories go on to be published works.

An example of one of these quite interesting stories is the explanation for fossils in Five Children and It.  The Psammead, the wish-granting sand fairy, imparts a lot of “historical” knowledge to the children who find him.  The Psammead is several thousand years old and supposedly from the time of Pterodactyls and Megatheriums, the time of dinosaurs.  Apparently he used to grant wishes for Megatheriums to be eaten, but whatever of them was not eaten by sunset would turn to stone.  This applies for any wish that produces an object.  As soon as the sun sets, it turns to stone.  Thus, this story implies that the dinosaur remains, fossils, we find today are the results of, for lack of a better term, wish leftovers.

Megatherium

I delight in this kind of pseudo-mythology in literature, and I wonder why this form of fiction is popular and frequently embedded in novels and stories.  I mentioned before that I am not sure why adults enjoy these kinds of “re-tellings,” but they do provide a source of entertainment.  Adults constantly lie to children about life—babies coming from storks, fairies, the Boogie man, and most notorious, Santa Claus.  If we think back, a lot of these fantasy elements have been used over time to protect children and direct their behavior, such as Santa Claus watching over all children in order to reward the good ones with presents on Christmas, and this helps to make children behave properly more often.  However, what benefit or advantage does this fake history of fossils told by the Psammead have?

I believe that these fake histories provide background for the story.  If the Psammead had no “concrete” history and was just a mysterious being, it lops him into a group of flat characters.  Histories, even fake ones, flesh out characters and even if the genre is fiction, make the characters seem more genuine and real, with real not necessarily meaning as from our reality.

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Character Analysis: The Psammead

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The Psammead, in my opinion, is the most fascinating character among the texts that I’ve read thus far in LIT 4334. It is depicted as a very grotesque looking character, but through the monstrous appearance there is an amalgamation of nuances that add to the interesting nature of the Psammead. It is described to have eyes like a snail, ears like a bat, a body like a spider, hands and feet like a monkey, and whiskers like a rat. All these descriptions make me think that the Psammead has unparalleled senses, specifically sight, sound, and touch, and this unique trait adds to the unworldly persona of the Psammead. The fact that this is the only Psammead left in existence speaks to the special opportunity that the five children experience. The Psammead has distant memories of events that have long transpired, but can remember them with proficiency. This truly is a sentient beast to a high extreme. In the very beginning of the book, it is told that Psammead is used to granting wishes that are mundane and boring, but the wishes that the children ask the Psammead for are too unfamiliar and too fantastic, that the old standard of wishes being set to stone if unused after a day no longer applies.

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The Psammead interacts with the children through a series of wishes, which it grants. The children ask to be beautiful, to be rich, to have wings, to be allowed in the castle, and to give a wealthy woman’s jewelry to their mother. All of these wishes are materialistic and only cause a degradation of self because they are all complacent wishes, which I believe is why they all cause something to go wrong with each wish. The Pssamead is sort of like a theological or supernatural entity that answers prayers, as it were, but for some unusual reason is portrayed as an ugly, grotesque monster instead of a seraphic being. The Psammead tires of their wishes, and tells them no longer to ask for any more wishes, but the Psammead tells Anthea that the wish she had of all the children being able to see it again will be granted. This wish will/ is granted most likely because it is selfless and is in some sense directed toward the Psammead, causing it to feel appreciated and loved.

Without the Psammead in the text, the story would be utterly nonsensical and without a cohesive plot. The Psammead is the very central character of this story. It is the nucleus of the cell that is the entire text. Without its ability to grant wishes, the children would not have had the adventures that they did, and would not have gone grown as children.

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Five Children and It: A Close Reading

Five Children and It“Grown-up people find it very difficult to believe really wonderful things, unless they have what they call proof. But children will believe almost anything, and grown-ups know this. That is why they tell you that the earth is round like an orange, when you can see perfectly well that it is flat and lumpy; and why they say that the earth goes round the sun, when you can see for yourself any day that the sun gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night like a good sun as it is, and the earth knows its place, and lies as still as a mouse” (3).

In this short passage found in Five Children and It, Edith Nesbit reveals one of the most undeniable truths about the construction of children and the basis of children’s literature. Through the omniscient voice of the narrator, Nesbit suggests that children are the only ones capable of believing the miracles contained within children’s literature and adults take advantage of this.

It is interesting to note that she speaks in second person to the child reader as someone who understands both the adult world and the children’s world wholly. Although it is obvious that Nesbit is an adult, she refuses to speak from the side of the “grown-up people.” This accomplishes two objectives.

First, Nesbit draws in the child reader and engages them personally by acknowledging that the child reader has certain knowledge that even adults lack. This is seen in the phrases “you can see perfectly well” and “you can see for yourself.” By making the child reader a “you,” Nesbit is addressing the entirety of the realm of children and gives the child reader a dimension of power over the adult realm because they can obviously see with their eyes the miracles that grown-ups fail to see. This is an interesting element of children’s literature that is not unique to Nesbit but can be found in the narrations of classic’s such as Water Babies and Peter Pan. Authors of children’s literature have utilized the second person effectively because it makes the child reader more interested and personally connected to the story. It enables them to feel like an important figure in the book. Nesbit makes use of this knowledge wonderfully in this passage.

The second point that Nesbit makes by making the narrator speak neither from the adults nor the children is allow the children’s negative energy to be directed away from the narrator and towards “adults.” Perhaps as a writer of children’s literature herself, Nesbit did not believe that she was secluded to the realm of grown-up people and thus did not suffer the same faults. Either way, by making the narrator a separate entity, Nesbit gains the child reader’s trust and becomes a creditable person. This paves the way for the rest of the book in which the child reader, already flattered from the narrator’s compliments, is more likely to believe the narrator’s comments and take them with a grain of salt.

A final interesting note about this passage is that Nesbit suggests that adults take advantage of the minds of children in the statement “children will believe almost anything, and grown-ups know this.” I believe that Nesbit was actually calling out writers of children’s literature and those adults who were in charge of deciding what was proper for children’s literature. I think this is evident in Nesbit’s utilization of an unorthodox magical wish-giving character the Sand-Fairy. Instead of following the example of the children’s literature authors before her, Nesbit created the image of the Sand-Fairy as a strange-looking, grumpy, and often unwilling character. Furthermore, her children are definitely not the image of perfection characteristic of the Victorian era. Instead, her child protagonists are more characteristic of children of the Edwardian era, which were represented as more raw-natured, mischievious, and trouble-making kids. As mentioned before, Nesbit as the narrator did not take her stand with the grown-up people because she felt they could not possibly be able to write for children the most effectively because they themselves could not believe the miracles that exist in their stories. For these reasons I think that Nesbit was making a jab at the adults involved in children’s literature.

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In the chapter where the Lamb is turned suddenly into an adult, the kids find themselves dealing with a Lamb that is rude, selfish, and overall lacking in good qualities. Through the whole ordeal, Lamb’s siblings are even more put off by adult Lamb than baby Lamb; except Anthea who worries about him the entire time.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Seemed like a good idea at the time to me too.

For me, the narrator’s commentary in this chapter is what most caught my attention. The narrator seems to be just as unwilling to accept Lamb as an adult as everyone else; almost every time Lamb is mentioned, the reference is followed up with a comment about how he must now be called by one of his real, adult names. For example: “The grown-up Lamb (or Hilary, as I suppose one must now call him) fixed his pump and blew up the tyre” (Nesbit 198).

The chronological development of these references gets more and more wearisome to the narrator, and as sunset approaches, the references get more and more jaded and the narrator goes so far as to comment that, “The grown-up Lamb (nameless henceforth) was gone forever” (Nesbit 205).

Forever is a very permanent word, and yet this decided permanent disappearance is how both the children and narrators view grown-up Lamb: gone forever. This in no way means that the children think that the Lamb will never grow up, it just means that he will not grow into the man they spent all day dealing with – or so they hope.

Here the children address the issue with their different methods: Cyril wants to bully it out of him, Jane thinks kindness will work, Robert wants to improve him over time, and Anthea wants to protect him from all of them (Nesbit 206-207). These varied methods beg the question though, if they are all applied – or even just one – what is to  really stop him from becoming the selfish grown-up he was in this section? The wish here seems to deal with a lesson about growing up and cherishing youth, but is there also another subtle lesson about adolescent development?

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Lamb as a Teaching Tool

In Five Children and It by E. Nesbit the character that most interested me was the Lamb and his use as a character to teach morals to the other children. Lamb was the victim of a few of the children’s wishes but was also used to transform the other four siblings internally by the end of the tale.

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Lamb was the subject of a wish gone wrong when the children wished someone else wanted the child. That wish turned into everyone wanting the child and the children had to fight off kidnappers to protect their younger brother. I believe this was the first lesson used to teach the children the importance of family, and the need to protect family no matter what.

Lamb and his rapid transformation into adulthood was the second wish made that could have potentially hurt Lamb. What was puzzling to me about his transformation was his rude character and demeanor. His adult self seemed very contrasted from his siblings. When he first shifted I was under the impression he would simply become the version of himself he was meant to grow into, but judging by those who surrounded him it is my belief that this reflected a Lamb made by magic and not what he could have potentially been.

I think this wish was used to teach the children the dangers of growing up too quickly. The children attempted to take control of their own lives by wishing everything they wanted. Controlling one’s future is an adult responsibility, and I think the negative consequences that came after each wish were meant to teach the children to be patient and not rush out of childhood.

I think Lamb as a character served to teach the four children a lessen more so than just to be one of the children. His infant age from the very beginning makes him unique amongst the five. He has this sense of innocence not only because he is so young but also because he himself is the only one who does not make any wishes. He is affected by the wishes of his siblings and even when he is transformed into an adult he does not ask anything of the Psaammead. One of the reasons his absence of wishing preserves his innocence because he is not the direct cause of any of the negative consequences. He is not responsible for the unfortunate side effects of the wishes. The other siblings were forced to lose a piece of their childhood in order to resolve some of these issues they created by lying or being deceitful. This creates a greater divide between the innocence of Lamb and the others.

ImageThe only slight loss of innocence experienced by Lamb is when he transforms into an adult, Hilary or St Maur, for a day. During this time, Land is rude and even attempts to go off with a woman. However, even in this situation Lamb was not responsible for his own mistakes. In my opinion, the adult he turned into is not reflective of the adult he would have grown up to be. I believe this is so because of my earlier distinction of how different his character was from the other children. It is likely that he would have grown up similar to the others instead of the character he temporarily portrayed. My belief is that by turning back into a child he will have a second chance to maintain his childhood and grow into a child then adult more similar to the others. In this situation, Lamb will serve as a tool to teach the other children as well as himself.

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Five Children and It bibliography

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Drout, Michael D.C. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship And Critical Assessment. London: Routledge. 2006. Print

“The New York Review of Books.” The Writing of E. Nesbit by Gore Vidal. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.

Briggs, Julia. Edith Nesbit: A Woman of Passion. Stroud, Gloucestershire [England: Tempus Pub., 2007. Print.

Smith, Michelle. “E. Nesbit’s Psammead Trilogy: Reconfiguring Time, Nation, and Gender.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 52.3 (2009): 298311. Print.

Parker, Sam. “Jacqueline Wilson On Writing ‘Four Children And It…’ (INTERVIEW).” The Huffington Post UK. N.p., 20 Sept. 2012. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.

 

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