Do children never learn?

psammead

Edith Nesbit:
Five Children and It
Wordsworth Children’s Classics 1993

E Nesbit does it
again: do children never
learn? Of course they don’t.

When the five children in this story ask what ‘It’ is, and It tells them it is a Psammead, the immediate comment is the stock phrase “It’s all Greek to me.” And of course that is the point: Psammead would be Greek for ‘sand fairy’, which is what It is.

This is perhaps a clear indication that Edith Nesbit was writing not just for children but also for adults, herself included, the kind of educated middleclass adults alive at the tail-end of Victorian Britain.

Which is a point that many modern-day readers often miss, especially those that criticise the chapter on American Indians for not being politically correct (it was published in 1902, when such stereotypes were perpetuated, and which Nesbit was satirising), or who chastise the author for speaking down to children (they clearly haven’t read many of the contemporary morally-improving tomes for children, compared with which Nesbit’s voice comes across as thoroughly modern and sensitive in its understanding of, and sympathy for, sheltered bourgeois mentality and experience).

Having risen to the defence of Nesbit, I have to say that I didn’t find Five Children and It as captivating as I might have hoped, though it was rather better paced than her preceding titles centred on the Bastable children, The Treasure Seekers (1899) and The Wouldbegoods (1901). Originally appearing in installments (ideal for bedtime reading), the story follows the by now familiar pattern of a group of children who, despite often good intentions, find the outcomes not going the way they hoped. Unlike the Bastable children, this family (Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane, plus the baby Hilary they call ‘Lamb’) has its adventures spiced up by magic, provided by their wishes being granted by the creature they find in an old sand quarry.

To describe the adventures would be to lose any magic gained by reading the story, but of course the precise wishes, formulated through the distorting prisms of juvenile brains, are all granted in rather diverting ways. What I did find captivating, however, was the Psammead itself, not unsurprisingly a rather grumpy personnage considering not only its extreme age but also its constant disturbance by a bunch of kids. As a grumpy personnage myself (though not of a similar age) I thoroughly sympathised with its tic of having to grant whimsical wishes to all and sundry.

Whilst only slightly bemused by its command of contemporary English, I was rather more irritated by its equally whimsical portrayal by more recent book cover designers and film makers, in defiance of Nesbit’s very clear description: it had eyes … on long horns like a snail’s eyes, and it could move them in and out like telescopes, and ears like a bat’s ears, and its tubby body was shaped like a spider’s and covered with thick soft fur; its legs and arms were furry too, and it had hands and feet like a monkey’s, not to mention rat-like whiskers. My edition has a cover illustration depicting the Psammead with bat’s ears, a furry body (green, to be sure) and primate hands and feet as expected, but, horror of horrors, eyes in a face rather than on those telescopic stalks emerging from the top of its head. And the creature in the recent film of the same name is a travesty of Nesbit’s careful portrait.


Repost of review first published 16th July, 2012

25 thoughts on “Do children never learn?

  1. I began to read Five Children and It to my daughter a long time ago: at that time it was too slow moving for her. Now, however, you have inspired me to try another visit. I love E Nesbit’s stuff, Its, phoenixes and all.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really pleased to have inspired you! I’ve only recently begun reading Nesbit, from her non-magical stories of the Bastable children (The Treasure Seekers and The Wouldbegoods) to The Enchanted Castle and Five Children and It, with a couple more waiting. They’re delightful stories, even if they betray an episodic feel due to their being published in instalments. I’ve stalled however on A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book (which is manifestly based on a Nesbit-like figure) and must get back to it sometime; I hate giving up on books.

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        1. The Bastables certainly seem more distinguishable to me than the quintet in this series, especially because of the idiosyncratic narrator, but I did very much like the animal nicknames they gave each other, from Squirrel and Panther (for Cyril and Anthea) down to the Lamb (unnamed I think in this, the first of the series).

          I’m also going to repost my review of the second in the series before finally getting round to critiquing The Story of the Amulet before in the New Year belatedly tackling the Kate Saunders sequel Five Children on the Western Front. And then maybe A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book (based on Nesbit and her friends in the Fabian Society), followed by a recently published biography of Nesbit … and so it goes on…😁

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          1. Who knows where it will all take you!
            I always loved Oswald Bastable (and H O) and was enraged to read on the internet ‘ Oswald Bastable is a fictional character created by Michael Moorcock.’

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  3. I’ve had my share of Nesbit, from Psammead and Phoenix to the amulet, and I must admit I liked it more as an adult, being more able to appreciate the subtle humor. As a child I viewed the book as boring, unfortunately – compared to Tolkien it didn’t really stand a chance 😉

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    1. I do so agree, Ola! I fancy that, published in instalments in a magazine format, the stories might have been read to children by adults as bedtime stories and, being contemporary with the intended audience, they might have appealed more then; certainly remembering the L P Hartley dictum that the Past is a foreign country — they did things differently then — modern readers may well find the nuances, customs and language going over their head.

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  4. This was my family’s favorite book when my children were young; I can’t remember what ages they were when we first read it out loud to them. We all loved the psammead, not least because when we said the name out loud, our cat Sammy would come and curl up with us while we read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cats really do know their names, don’t they! But especially annoying when they turn their backs on you and walk disdainfully away when you call them…

      I’ve not read Nesbit to either kids or grandkids — picture books, yes, but once they learnt to read for themselves I was dismissed from the position of bedtime storyteller. One grandchild even had the temerity to tell me to stop reading The Hobbit with different character voices or they’d rather read it themselves: not sure if my reading was crap or if they heard the voices differently in their heads.

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  5. Alyson Woodhouse

    I remember enjoying Five Children and It, so I’m glad you liked it too. It’s funny you should mention the Children’s Book in the comments, as I just read it last month, and I actually thought it was something you might find interesting. It is quite heavy going in places, but I hope you get a chance to return to it at some point, as I would be intrigued to hear your thoughts .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really do intend to get back to the Byatt, Alyson, and will definitely post my thoughts on it. I stalled on the heavy going at the time—I think we all probably go through stages like that when we yearn for an easy read rather than something, shall we say, ‘worthy’! I’m assuming you enjoyed it by the end?

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  6. Pingback: #Winding Up the Week #97 – Book Jotter

  7. I do love the idea of a sand fairy! It makes me think of the mischievous Sandman in Rise of the Guardians. Any time a magical creature comes from an element–water, earth, etc–there promises a good (even if slow) adventure. 🙂

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  8. buriedinprint

    This is one that I read as an adult too. And I didn’t love it – or fall in love with it – either. But I remain interested in her more generally. And I didn’t know there was a link in any way to that Byatt book (a longtime TBR occupant for me).

    I’m thinking about reading projects for children’s series for next year. There are so many strong contenders. Maybe I’ll focus on the adult books at the beginning of the year and you’ll continue to tempt me with possibilities. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to hear from you, Marcie, and interesting that we’re of one mind on the so-so quality of this particular title!

      I have a number of children’s novels waiting to be read, with reviews to follow, so maybe I could tempt you with the odd one in 2020; unfortunately for you I don’t as a rule tag my reviews as about juvenile literature (believing that a good novel can be read and enjoyed at some level whatever one’s age) so trawling through past posts may be the only recourse if you’re looking for recommendations!

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      1. buriedinprint

        I just loved Naughty Nancy and that simply worked out! So I’m willing to allow bookish synchronicity to wield its magic. Some of the books I’m considering for 2020 are Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel stories, a reread of the John Christopher Tripods stories, the Susan Cooper quintet (which I’ve never finished), the Betsy-Tacy books (also unfinished) and the Lloyd Alexander series (which I’ve never read). Every year I imagine I might work through a few of the NYRB reissues of children’s classics too, but those are all library loans for me. Last year I read Margery Sharp’s Rescuers stories and the Oz books the year prior. I’ve also got a small shelf of animal stories (Marguerite Henry, Mary O’Hara etc.) as an ongoing project (approached with trepidation). Anything seem to overlap with your plans so far? 🙂

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        1. Glad Nancy tickled your fancy! 🙂 I’d not considered the Carbonel books, though I have been tempted by the Tripods series (I may even have read the first novel way back when, I seem to remember). I’ve now read the first two in the Cooper fantasy sequence and hope to continue in due course, while the first two of the Alexander books are on my shelves (I read the first ages ago) though I’m unfamiliar with Betsy-Tacy. So thus far the Alexander and the Cooper titles look the most promising!

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