Continuing our efforts to review all of the shortlisted books before Monday’s medal winners announcement, Becky tells us about Carnegie shortlisted Five Children On The Western Front…
In Five Children on the Western Front, Kate Saunders has done something remarkably brave and bold by taking up the mantle of the much loved children’s author E. Nesbit. The original Five Children novels were written by Nesbit at the turn of the twentieth century and are considered by many as literary classics. They centre around the wonderfully charismatic, yet somewhat cantankerous Psammead; a sand fairy that has the ability to grant wishes to the five children who discover him in the gravel pit at the bottom of their garden. In Five Children on the Western Front, Saunders has moved the story forward nine years and we meet the children again at the brink of the First World War. Cyril, the eldest of the five children is now a soldier preparing to fight in the trenches and the Psammead reappears on the eve of his departure. The Psammead or ‘Sammy’ as the children fondly refer to him, is unsure why he has returned to the children but informs them that he has been through ‘some sort of violent magical upheaval’ and that his powers are diminished. The rest of the story follows Sammy and the children on a journey of discovery as to why he has lost his magic and the means by which to return it to him.
Saunders stays true to the original language of Nesbit’s books with phrases such as ‘Old Bean’ and ‘Toodleoo’ littering the pages. At first, I was worried this would render the book too saccharine or antiquated for the modern reader. However, a couple of chapters in I realised that’s it was necessary to evoke both the historical setting and the youthful innocence of the children. The Psammead is without doubt the star of the book and his unashamedly haughty attitude provides a wonderful comic element to the action. This serves to lighten the harrowing backdrop of the First World War, which hangs heavily over the lives of the children. In his journey to recover his magic the Psammead takes the children to visit Cyril in the Front. Though Saunders does not explicitly delve into the horrors of trench warfare, certain phrases such as ‘the soldiers…tramped on towards the sound of gunfire’ coupled with the readers imagination are enough to permeate the story with a sense of foreboding.
I think Kate Saunders has done a remarkable job in bringing these beloved characters back to life and her novel is a fitting tribute to the original author. It has a dark period in History at its heart but Saunders handles this with poignancy and care. I was truly moved by the end of this book and feel it is a very worthy contender for the Carnegie medal.