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E. Nesbit: Everyday Magic, Ordinary Children

Edgar Eager, well known children’s author of the 50’s and 60’s, discovered the works of E. Nesbit while searching for books to read to his son.  He thought that Nesbit was the best children’s author of all time, and consistently acknowledged his debt to her.  In fact, his novel Half Magic opens with the main characters reading Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle.

As chance would have it, I discovered the works of E. Nesbit while browsing the works of Edgar Eager in search of some good summer reading.  Over the next few months I was introduced to some of the most innovative, charming and genuinely funny children’s novels I have read to date.

Edith Nesbit was born outside of London in 1858.  Her father died when she was very young and her mother took over the family business (the absent parent and the working mother will be important themes throughout her career).   A writer from an early age, Nesbit was first published when she was only fifteen.  Later, as a young mother, she supported her family when her husband fell ill by writing short stories, articles, and poems – much like the young mother in her 1906 novel The Railway Children.  Unconventional and outspoken, she devoted most of her time to social causes until her writing career took off in 1899 with the publication of The Story of the Treasure Seekers:  Being the Adventures of the Bastable Children in Search of a Fortune.

What Nesbit had done was introduce a new way of writing for and about children:  siblings having recently moved to a new home or on holiday in the country search for ways to amuse themselves.  On their own and unsupervised, the imaginative and well-intentioned children manage to get in and out of all kinds of mischief, quarrelling with one another along the way as real children do, but in the end coming together and learning important life-lessons in the process.

Her greatest and most influential contribution was yet to come.  In Five Children and It (1902) magic was added to the formula.  Siblings exploring a gravel pit near their new home uncover the Psammead (pronounced Sammyadd), an ancient Sand-fairy comfortably asleep for millions of years who now reluctantly (and rather grumpily) agrees to grant the children one wish per day.  What ensues is a series of hilarious misadventures that give new meaning to the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.”  The adventures, in what became a trilogy, continue in The Phoenix and the Carpet and conclude with The Story of the Amulet.  Previously, there were two types of fantasy adventures for children.  In one the story takes place from beginning to end in a distinct and separate fantasy-land as in Snow White.  In the other the children travel to a distant magical world as in Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz.  Not  long ago or far away, the magic now resided in the everyday lives of ordinary children, creating limitless possibilities not only for Nesbit, but for scores of authors who followed her.

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