Author: E. Nesbit
My inclination is to post about the Chronicles of Narnia for every Library Project entry. I consider them the perfect childhood reading.
Realizing that that wouldn’t be practical or informative, I will nevertheless keep them very much at the ready to supply insight into other books. For instance, when you open to the first chapter of the Magician’s Nephew, you read:
The Wrong Door
This is a story about something that happened long ago…
In those days Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road.
The Bastables are the characters in E. Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers. Don’t you experience a thrill when you realize that another adventure in reading awaits? (Not to pass over Sherlock Holmes by any means.)
And if you open to the second page of Seven-Day Magic (pg. 12 of the book — and that anomaly of counting always mystified me as a child), you read this:
Everybody began talking at the same time, and the name of E. Nesbit was heard in more than one voice, for she was the five children’s favorite author and no wonder (though Fredericka liked the Oz books nearly as well).
“Why couldn’t she have lived forever?” said Abbie, taking that best of all Nesbit books, The Enchanted Castle, down from the self and looking at it with loving eyes.
“We’ve read all of hers, and nobody seems to do books like that anymore.”
E. Nesbit satisfies the child reader because she acknowledges that from the earliest age we become aware of and grapple with serious deficiencies in life. Whether it’s the adult world making trouble for the child (absent or dead parents, poverty, mysterious difficulties with no name, even adult frustrations with our precious selves and the mischief we wreak) or the stubborn refusal of the natural world to reveal its magical properties, Nesbit understands.
She doesn’t talk down to the child but she doesn’t spare him, either. Her magic (and not all the stories have magic) is interestingly incomplete. It isn’t the facile wish-fulfillment of the immature imagination — it’s the imposition of the necessity of finding out the rules of things: of finally submitting wish-fulfillment to self-control. That is a lesson we all have to learn, and the fact that she teaches it with such a light hand, using the very longings of the child to satisfy him with something more, that reveals her genius.
(And she’s funny.)
I think awareness of childhood anguish is what separates the best authors from the merely acceptable. It isn’t just a good story for entertainment’s sake. It’s a story that, in the midst of whimsicality and delight, appreciates that the child is trying to make sense of things in a serious way — that he’s engaged in a struggle for ultimate understanding of that most opaque world, the world of grown people in their intractable environment.
My personal enjoyment in literature for any age is the sly nod from the narrator — the author’s voice that breaks through to share a joke with me, the reader. Of this she is the master, which makes her books fantastic to read aloud, because they keep everyone interested.
As a bonus, The Railway Children was made into a fun family movie — and I know you have been wanting to discuss movies. Definitely make time for this one after you’ve read the story. Rollicking good fun!