Kate Saunders: Five Children on the Western Front (2014)

Five Children on the Western Front

Five Children on the Western Front is a delightful story inspired by E. Nesbit’s famous children’s book Five Children and It. I’m still surprised how much I loved this book. I’m not always keen on sequels of classics, but since I haven’t read Nesbit’s tale yet, I couldn’t compare. And I’m aware that the main character of the book “It” – or Psammead -, the sand fairy, is Nesbit’s creation and not Saunders’, nonetheless her book offers many new elements.

When the five children were younger, they had many adventures with a furry, snooty creature they discovered in a gravel pit. The sand fairy was able to grant wishes and those wishes, which were always over at sunset, transported them back and forth in time. Often with hilarious consequences.

But since then many years have gone by. Cyril, Anthea and Robert are in their twenties, Jane is about sixteen, and the youngest, the Lamb, is eleven and not even the youngest anymore. There’s a sixth child, the nine year-old Edie.

The younger kids were often jealous of their siblings’ adventures with the sand fairy and are overjoyed when they discover the grumpy creature in their gravel pit. It’s the beginning of WWI and the sand fairy is stuck in their world. He cannot go home, he cannot make any wishes. Or only accidental ones. The kids take him home and hide him in a sand bath on the attic.

Like in the first book they have many hilarious adventures. They are even more mysterious this time because the sand fairy can’t control them. Some of the adventures are more troubling than funny. Cyril has enlisted and is soon followed by Robert. More than one wish transports them to the trenches where they become witnesses of the horrors.

The beginning of the book was so lovely and light, I was a bit afraid it wasn’t showing the proper respect for the war, but it turned darker and darker, showing the danger, the seriousness and the consequences of the war. Death and facial disfigurement are as much part of the tale as the changing times— women who leave their homes to become nurses, the first opportunities for women to study medicine.

I’m amazed that Kate Suanders was able to combine two such different moods. The characters are so endearing and their affection for each other is heartwarming. I didn’t want the book to end and will certainly read Nesbit’s story. The sand fairy is such a great creation. He has telescopic eyes, the ears of a bat, long, gangly limbs and a rotund body. He’s smug, nosey, grumpy, selfish and mean. There’s a reason why he returned during the war. He’s done a lot of bad things in his lifetime and has to make amends.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 09.58.57

Kate Saunders wrote an interesting afterword in which she writes how she got the idea. She loved Five Children and It as a child and, later in life, realized that these Edwardian children would be part of the generation that had to go to war and was so heavily decimated. Losing her own son at the age of nineteen, helped her give the book emotional depth.

I really recommend this novel. It’s charming and sad. I thought she did well not to modernize it. The children sound like children of the time, which gives the story a nostalgic feel.

I only hope I won’t think differently about it once I’ve read E. Nesbit’s story.

Have you read E. Nesbit? Which of her books do you like best?

David Almond: Skellig (1998)

Skellig

I often think that the best books for children are not just books for a particular age group but timeless tales for any age. Just think of Antoine de St Exupéry’s The Little Prince. It’s a children’s book but it is so much more. And so is Skellig, David Almond’s wondrous, lyrical novel of love and healing.

Skellig combines a mundane story with something magical and mysterious. Michael is ten years old when his family moves into a new house. His baby sister is very ill and there’s no telling whether she will survive.

One afternoon Michael enters the dilapidated garage at the end of the garden and discovers a strange being. It looks like a shrivelled man, covered in spiders and cobwebs. Is it an old man? Is it a bird? Is it an angel?

Michael is traumatized by the events at home, by the constant fear his baby sister might die, and his parent’s decide to keep him at home. One day, after he has discovered the strange being, he meets Mina. Mina shows him a world he didn’t know. Her mother, a free-spirit who doesn’t believe in schools, teaches Mina at home. Mina knows a lot about evolution and birds and painting; she loves to draw and quotes William Blake.

Her mother teaches her many things other children learn at school but she also teaches her a sense of wonder Together the two children find out who or what Skellig is.

Skellig is such a magical book. Lyrical, spiritual and philosophical, but very realistic too. It’s an elusive book, that is hard to describe without breaking its spell. It’s a story of love and loss, grief and joy, inspired by tales of angels, the evolution of birds and William Blake. Every reader interprets Skellig in another way. After I finished it I’m still not sure what Skellig is but it doesn’t matter. It’s enough to feel how inspired David Almond was when he wrote this novel. Skellig is pure magic; an image, a deeply haunting feeling, that carries a truth that predates words. I think it took courage to write a book like this and to leave so many questions unanswered. David Almond seems to have been sure that even if we didn’t “get it” intellectually, we would still be able to understand it on an emotional level. I really love that.

Even if you don’t normally pick up children’s books – don’t miss Skellig.

Here’s a quote that will give you an idea of the writing:

“Let me sleep,” squeaked Skellig. “Let me go home.”

He lay facedown and his wings continued to quiver into shape above him. We drew the blankets up beneath them, felt his feathers against the skin on the backs of our hands. Soon Skellig’s breathing settled and he slept. Whisper rested against him, purring.

We stare at each other. My hand trembled as I reached out toward Skellig’s wings. I touched them with my fingertips. I rested my palms on them. I felt the feathers, and beneath them the bones and sinews and muscles that supported them. I felt the crackle of Skellig’s breathing.

I tiptoed to the shutters and stared out through the narrow chinks.

“What you doing?” she whispered.

“Making sure the world’s still really there,” I said.

Literature and War Readalong May 30 2014: Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo

Private Peaceful

Michael Morpurgo is a famous British Children’s author. Some of you may know him from the Spielberg movie War Horse, which was based on one of his novels. I’ve had Private Peaceful on my piles for a while and I’m really keen on reading it finally. I’ve always wondered how you write about war for children. Especially from the point of view of a soldier. We’ve read the Dutch novel Winter in Wartime last year, but that was set among civilians. So I’m curious to find out how explicit the book will be and where Morpurgo draws the line.

I’m glad that CarolineD made me aware that Private Peaceful and My Dear I Wanted to Tell You (our choice for September) have been chosen by CityRead London 2014. CItyRead London is a project to promote reading across the UK capital.

Here are the first sentences

They’ve gone now, and I’m alone at last. I have the whole night ahead of me, and I won’t waste a single moment of it. I shan’t sleep it away. I won’t dream it away either. I mustn’t, because every moment of it will be far too precious.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (UK 2003)  WWI, Children’s Book, 192 pages

Heroism or cowardice? A stunning story of the First World War from a master storyteller.

Told in the voice of a young soldier, the story follows 24 hours in his life at the front during WW1, and captures his memories as he looks back over his life. Full of stunningly researched detail and engrossing atmosphere, the book leads to a dramatic and moving conclusion.

Both a love story and a deeply moving account of the horrors of the First World War, this book will reach everyone from 9 to 90.

 

*******

The discussion starts on Friday, 30 May 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.