Five Children and It
|Illustrator||H. R. Millar|
|Publisher||T. Fisher Unwin|
|Followed by||The Phoenix and the Carpet|
Five Children and It is a children's novel by the English author E. Nesbit. It was first published as a book in 1902, having been expanded from a series of stories published in the Strand Magazine in 1900 under the general title The Psammead, or the Gifts. It is the first volume of a trilogy that includes The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and The Story of the Amulet (1906). The book has never been out of print since its initial publication.
Like Nesbit's The Railway Children, the story begins when a group of children move from London to the countryside of Kent. While playing in a gravel pit the five children – Robert, Anthea, Cyril, Jane and their baby brother, known as the Lamb – uncover a rather grumpy, ugly and occasionally malevolent Psammead or sand-fairy, who has the ability to grant wishes. He persuades the children to take one wish each day to be shared among them, with the caveat that the wishes will turn to stone at sunset. This, apparently, used to be the rule in the Stone Age, when all children wished for was food, the bones of which then became fossils. However, when the five children's first wish, to be "as beautiful as the day", ends at sunset, its effects simply vanish, leading the Psammead to observe that some wishes are too fanciful to be changed to stone.
All the wishes go comically wrong. When the children wish to be beautiful the servants don't recognise them and shut them out of the house. When they wish to be rich they find themselves with a gravel-pit full of gold spade guineas that no shop will accept as they are no longer in circulation, so they can't buy anything. A wish for wings seems to be going well, but at sunset the children find themselves stuck on top of a church bell tower with no way down, getting them into trouble with the gamekeeper who must take them home (though this wish has the happy side-effect of introducing the gamekeeper to the children's housemaid, who later marries him). After being bullied by the baker's boy Robert wishes that he was bigger, whereupon he becomes eleven feet tall and the other children show him at a travelling fair for coins. They also wish themselves into a castle, only to learn that it's being besieged, while a wish to meet real Red Indians ends with the children nearly being scalped.
The children's infant brother, the Lamb, is the victim of two wishes gone awry. In one, the children become annoyed with tending for their brother and wish that someone else would want him, leading to a situation where everyone wants the baby, and the children must fend off kidnappers and Gypsies. Later they wish the baby would grow up faster, causing him to grow all at once into a selfish, smug young man who promptly leaves them all behind.
Finally the children accidentally wish that they could give a wealthy woman's jewellery to their mother, causing all the jewellery to appear in their home. When it seems that the gamekeeper, who is now their friend, will be blamed for robbery the children must beg the Psammead for a complex series of wishes to set things right. It agrees, on the condition that they will never ask It (meaning himself) for another wish. Only Anthea, who has grown close to It, makes sure that the final wish is that they will meet It again. The Psammead assures them that this wish will be granted.
The five children are brothers and sisters:
- Cyril, known as Squirrel
- Anthea, known as Panther
- Robert, known as Bobs
- Jane, known as Pussy
- Hilary, the baby, known as the Lamb.
- "It" is the Psammead.
In Five Children and It the Psammead is described as having "eyes [that] were on long horns like a snail's eyes, and it could move them in and out like telescopes; it had 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" and whiskers like a rat's. When it grants wishes it stretches out its eyes, holds its breath and swells alarmingly.
The five children find the Psammead in a gravel-pit, which used to be seashore. There were once many Psammeads, but the others died because they got cold and wet. It is the only one of its kind left. It is thousands of years old, and remembers pterodactyls and other ancient creatures. When the Psammeads were around they granted wishes that were then mostly for food. The wished-for objects turned into stone at sunset if they were not used that day, but this doesn't apply to the children's wishes because what they wish for is so much more fantastic than the wishes the Psammead granted in the past. (Chapter 1)
The word "Psammead", pronounced "sammyadd" by the children in the story, appears to be a coinage by Nesbit from the Greek ψάμμος "sand" after the pattern of dryad, naiad and oread, implicitly signifying "sand-nymph".
The book's ending was clearly intended to leave readers in suspense:
"They did see it [the Psammead] again, of course, but not in this story. And it was not in a sand-pit either, but in a very, very, very different place. It was in a – But I must say no more."
The children reappear in The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and then in The Story of the Amulet (1906). The Psammead is offstage in the first of these sequels (it is simply mentioned by the Phoenix, who visits it three times to ask for a helpful wish when the situation becomes difficult), but it plays a significant role in the second sequel after the children rescue it from a pet shop.
Five Children and It has been adapted for television and film several times:
- In 1984–85 NHK broadcast a Japanese anime version, Onegai! Samia Don, in 78 episodes. No English dubbed version was ever produced, but it came out in other languages.
- In 1991 the BBC turned the story into a six-part television series. It was released in the UK under the story's original title, but in the USA it was released as The Sand Fairy. This was followed by The Return of the Psammead in 1993, with the Psammead the only character linking the two series. Both series were scripted by Helen Cresswell, and Francis Wright puppeteered and voiced the Psammead.
- In 2004 a film version was released, starring Kenneth Branagh, Freddie Highmore, Zoë Wanamaker, Jonathan Bailey and Norman Wisdom, with Eddie Izzard as the voice of the Psammead.
It was also adapted as a comic strip by Henry Seabright.
- Five Children and It at Project Gutenberg
- Text of Five Children and It
- Five Children and It (audiobook) from LibriVox
- The 1991 TV movie
- The 2004 film
- New York, 1905 edition (scanned page images from the Library of Congress)
- The 1985–86 anime Onegai! Samia Don, Samed el duende mágico
- The Return of the Psammead 1993 sequel to Five Children and It