|Photo by Hannah Love|
In this month of Remembrance in the Centenary of the outbreak of World War One, it seems especially appropriate to feature a book that begins in 1914 and takes some well-loved characters into danger in France. E. Nesbit's Five Children and It has become a classic for children; it was published in 1902 and it's not a great stretch of the imagination to see that the older children in the story would have been caught up in the "Great" War.
Cyril (Squirrel) is off to the Front, soon to be followed by Robert (Bobs). Anthea (Panther) becomes a VAD, while Jane (Pussy), much to her mother's horror, wants to train as a doctor. The Lamb (never known as Hilary, except to his mother) is a schoolboy and the five "children" have been joined by a sixth, Edie.
|Three VAD nurses 1916 Source: Europeana 1914-1918|
I started by asking Kate if the Nesbit books had always been a favourite with her.
Kate Saunders: 'Five Children and It' was a great favourite when I was a child. I also loved the two sequels - especially 'The Phoenix and the Carpet' because we lived near Kentish Town Road, where the carpet was purchased.
Mary Hoffman: At the end of Five Children and It, the children agree that Psammead will not give them any more wishes. Did this give you a massive problem? (As it must have done for Nesbit with the two sequels)
KS: The wishes were supposed to stop at the end of 'Five Children', but Nesbit decided to overlook this and so did I; the sand fairy is known to be capricious.
|Frontispiece to Five Children and It|
MH: When I re-read the books to my own children, I was made a bit uncomfortable by the attitude towards servants and in the first book the portrayal of Gypsies and “Red Indians.” I did bowdlerise a bit when reading out loud. Any thoughts on that?
KS: One thing I definitely did not want in my book was the children's snobbish asides about servants and the servant class in general. In these moments we hear Nesbit herself and not her characters. She does it in 'The Treasure Seekers' too, when she puts a remark about the servant not brushing the stairs into the unlikely mouth of Oswald Bastable. It's looks like a pretty poor show for a devoted socialist like Nesbit - until you consider the intense social anxiety of the time. Nesbit's rootless, wandering childhood left her with a fear of losing caste that it is difficult to understand today; she once rejected an illustration with the complaint that the children didn't look "like the children of gentlefolk".MH: You manage to maintain E. Nesbit’s tone in the dialogue among the children very well, with all the slang of the time. Did that come easily?
KS: I did not consciously imitate E Nesbit's 'tone' - I only have one tone, and couldn't change it if I tried. But many writers for children imitate her unconsciously. She is the mother of us all.MH: Was it you who changed the Psammead into a desert god or was that Nesbit in the two sequels?
KS:The original Psammead was not a desert god; I invented his background for the purposes of the story. But Nesbit left his background beautifully vague.MH: Setting your book in this centenary year of the outbreak of WW1, were you conscious of introducing the subject to young readers?
KS: I was highly aware of introducing young readers to the First World War, and giving them the broadest possible picture; thanks to the Psammead, I could take the children right to the front line, besides showing how lives were affected at home.
|Life in the trenches by "Simon Q" Creative Commons|
KS: My fellow-scribbler Amanda Craig saved the life of one of my characters - I won't say which. In the beginning my plot was less merciful than the final version.MH: You have known great personal loss, through the death of your son at nineteen. Did that inform what you wrote and was it in any way cathartic to write it?
KS:My own darling son died in 2012, and my grief definitely shaped this book. The writing of it probably held me together.MH: You have very thoroughly made it impossible for there to be a further book about the Psammead, at least not by you. What is your next project likely to be?
KS: I have no idea what my next children's book will be - I'm deep in a story for adults at the moment.MH: Did you go and see the poppies installation at the Tower?
KS: I missed seeing the poppies in the flesh, but loved the pictures - a beautiful work of art and the strongest possible statement of remembrance.
Thank you, Kate, for generously giving us your time in this busy month and good luck for the Costa!
You can read my review of Five Children on the Western Front here.