One of my favourite books from childhood was E. Nesbit’s “5 Children and It” – It being the Psammead, or Sand-Fairy, a strange creature with a round furry body and eyes out on stalks who says he can grant one wish a day. In the book, published in 1902, he does indeed give the five children (or more accurately, four children: Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane, and their baby brother, the Lamb) a wish every day. Unfortunately the children don’t necessarily think their ideas through, and every wish brings unexpected problems with it. However, the wishes only last until sunset, after which the children can think more carefully about what they will wish for the next day.
This beautifully adapted 1991 BBC television serial, which echoed the book faithfully, was recently re-shown in BBC 4’s season “The Secret Life of Children's Books”, and I enjoyed it all over again.
There was also a documentary about E. Nesbit, introduced by Samantha Bond, during which she interviewed two modern authors, both of whom had written “sequels”, or more aptly, respectful tributes, to the original story. One of these was Kate Saunders, whose book “Five Children on the Western Front”, published in 2014, takes the same five children forward to the eve of the First World War.
The four older children are now in their late teens and the Lamb is 11 and has a younger sister, Edith – and we know that the war will change their lives forever. Once again the Psammead gives wishes, but inevitably the whole mood is rather darker than the original, and probably more suited to slightly older children. However, there is still some humour, and the Psammead is as grumpy as ever, though in this book we find out more about his past. Kate Saunders deservedly won the Costa award for this book in 2014, and I for one thoroughly enjoyed it.
Samantha Bond then interviewed Jacqueline Wilson, who has also written a further book about the Psammead, entitled “Four Children and It”.
This book, published in 2012, is about four modern children who face modern problems of split families and step-siblings and spend their time annoying each other. When they find the Psammead in a sandpit in Oxshott Woods, Rosalind, the narrator, who is a great fan of the original story, recognises It immediately, and they are soon caught up in the excitement of coming up with one really great wish a day, including one in which Rosalind wishes they could meet the five children from the original book. Once again none of the wishes quite works out as the children intended, but interesting lessons are learnt, and the book ends in a most satisfactory way.
I hope E. Nesbit would be delighted to think that her stories and the characters she created are still entertaining children and inspiring other authors almost 125 years after they were written.