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Literature / Five Children and It

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Five Children and It is a novel by E. Nesbit first published in 1902.

Five siblings—Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and their baby brother "the Lamb"—are looking forward to a dull summer in the English countryside when they unexpectedly discover It. "It" is the Psammead, an ancient and deeply grumpy and sarcastic sand-fairy with the power to grant wishes. Unfortunately, the Psammead has been sleeping at the bottom of the local gravel-pit for several millennia now, and his wish-granting powers are rusty. All he can manage is one wish per day, to be shared among all five children, with all wishes to vanish promptly at sunset. Even this turns out to be far too much as every wish turns into an unexpected disaster.

It had two sequels: The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), in which the second-hand carpet bought for the childrens' nursery turns out to be a Flying Carpet with the egg of The Phoenix rolled up in it, and The Story of the Amulet (1906), in which the children obtain an ancient Egyptian amulet that gives them to power to travel through time.

The Phoenix and the Carpet was adapted for BBC TV in the 1970s.

Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet were adapted for BBC TV in the 1990s, with scripts by Helen Cresswell. There was also The Return of the Psammead, a new story by Cresswell in which a new group of children met the Psammead.

An anime version was produced by TMS and broadcasted by NHS in 1985-1986- It was named Onegai! Samia-don ("Please, Mr. Psammead"), and had 78 episodes, setting the story in the English countryside of The '80s.

A Film of the Book of Five Children and It was released in 2004, with Eddie Izzard as the voice of the Psammead.

In 2012, Jacqueline Wilson published Four Children and It, in which four modern-day children meet the Psammead. An adaptation called Four Kids and It was released in 2020 with Michael Caine as Psammead and Russell Brand as the scheming Uncle Tristan Trent.

Kate Saunders's 2014 Five Children on the Western Front, which has the original children, now young adults, facing the Great War, won the annual Costa Children's Book Award.

Not to be confused with It (which is about seven children and a totally different It).

Five Children and It provides examples of:

  • Affectionate Nickname: All the children have their own: Anthea is Panther (because it sounds a little like her name), Robert is Bobs, Cyril is Squirrel, and Jane is Pussy. The Lamb is called Lamb because his first word was "baa."
  • Arbitrarily Large Bank Account: Naturally, one of the first things the children wish for is money—a whole gravel pit full of gold coins, to be exact—only to discover they can't spend any of it: either people can't possibly change the coins, they grow suspicious over where the children got them, or they refuse to accept obsolete currency.
  • Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: Happens to one of the children when he wishes to be taller.
  • Ambiguously Absent Parent: You have to read very, very closely to catch that the children's parents are visiting a sick grandparent in the city, leaving the kids in the hands of the servants. Even when their mother returns home near the end of the story, it's still unclear where their father is.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Forms most of the plot, with many mistakes caused by the children making impulsive wishes or not considering the full consequences.
  • Big Eater: All the children tend to be this, but particularly Robert. The critical point of many an adventure comes when not only has the children's wish gotten them into some impossible jam, but they're missing dinner because of it.
  • The Big Guy: Robert's wish to be bigger than the neighborhood bully ends with him turning into a literal giant. His siblings end up renting him to a circus for cash.
  • Braids, Beads and Buckskins: The children wish to meet "red Indians," which to a child of turn-of-the-century England is basically an imaginary creature. The ones they get fit into every stereotype.
  • Brownface: Believing that "red Indians" are literally red, the children paint themselves with brick ochre as a disguise in order to negotiate a peace treaty.
  • The Conscience: Anthea seems to be the moral center for all the children, even when she's alone in that opinion. When the children "borrow" food from a church pantry, Anthea's the one who convinces them to pool their money to pay for it, and leaves an apology note. She's also the one who feels sorry for the childless woman who still loves the Lamb once the wanted-by-everyone wish wears off. And when the gold coins from the Psammead vanish at sunset, Anthea sends an anonymous letter with some real money to pay for a purchase.
  • Chance Activation: In the film, while everyone tries to figure out how to open the door, the baby is playing with the lock. The door swings open.
  • Cross-Referenced Titles: A chapter is called "Wings", as the children wish for them. The next chapter is "No Wings", in which their wings disappear while they are asleep, leaving them stranded on a church tower.
  • Death Is Cheap: A brief example; the Psammead mentions that back in the past, one boy made a series of bad wishes that resulted in him being punished by his parents by not being allowed to take part in an upcoming trip, and then came to the pit and screamed that he wished he was dead, which resulted in the boy being literally dead for a few hours until sunset that evening.
  • Digging to China: The children find the Psammead when they are trying to dig a hole to Australia.
  • Discretion Shot: Used twice as a humorous literary device.
  • Distinguishing Mark: Played with. After the children foolishly wish that everyone would want their little brother and then have to chase after everyone who kidnaps him, one character claims him as his long-lost son because he doesn't have a birthmark.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble:
    • Phlegmatic: Reasonable, sensible, and sensitive Anthea
    • Sanguine: Cyril, who plays the big-brother role to the hilt, and who tends to come up with plans.
    • Choleric: Hot-tempered, short-sighted Robert.
    • Melancholic: Jane, who tends to burst into tears at every calamity and always assumes the worst outcome.
  • Free-Range Children: Almost every adventure requires the children to wander off unsupervised without informing any adults. The adults never care that the kids are missing as long as they're not off causing trouble. One could argue that it was a Different Time...but they're also traipsing about the countryside with an infant in tow.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Jane's family nickname is "Pussy," while the Lamb frequently shortens Anthea's nickname "Panther" to "Pantie." In addition, at one point Anthea encourages the "Red Indians" they've inadvertently summoned to dress themselves in their "gayest wigwams."
  • Invisible Parents: The children's parents spend most of the book in the city with a sick grandmother, leaving the kids in the care of Martha the housemaid.
  • Known Only by Their Nickname: The baby, usually referred to as "the Lamb" or "Baby".
  • Lemony Narrator: Nesbit occasionally addresses her audience directly, such as a moment in the opening pages when she warns her young readers not to let their elderly aunts read this book, lest they start penciling remarks in the margins.
  • Literal Genie: The Psammead, which tends to grant their literal wishes even if they didn't intend to make a wish.
  • Loved by All: A wish results in the Lamb being instantly adored by everyone who sees him, leaving the children to spend their day whisking him away from one kidnapper after another.
  • Overly Long Name: The Lamb's full name is Hilary St. Maur Devereax.
  • Overnight Age-Up: The older four get annoyed with how they have to chase their baby brother around all the time, so they wish him into a grown-up. Unfortunately, he didn't learn all of the lessons associated with growing up, such as not being a total prat, and turns out to be even more annoying this way.
  • Perception Filter: After their first wish gets them into trouble, the children wish that their household servants won't notice the effects of any future wishes, leading to some general weirdness. In only one of several examples, Martha doesn't notice when the children wish the Baby into an adult. She thinks she's scooping up a fussy toddler, while the children see her carrying off a struggling, protesting grown man.
    • Worth noting that the Psammead refers to the Perception Filter as the easiest wish to grant, since adults don't notice much anyway.
  • Sequel Hook: At the end of the book, when the Psammead departs, the narrator assures the readers that the children will meet the Psammead again, but refuses to divulge when or where this will be. The answer is revealed in The Story of the Amulet.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: The children wish to "be as beautiful as the day," which causes them all to look like gloriously beautiful Christmas-card illustrations but has the unfortunate side effect of getting them all locked out of their house because the servants no longer recognize them.
  • Spontaneous Mustache: Happens to the Lamb when his siblings wish him into an adult.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: When the children wish for a gravel pit full of gold coins, the coins are so pretty that their first instinct is to play in them, but when Robert tries to Beach Bury Jane in coins, she soon cries out in pain. Turns out, gold is heavy. Likewise, Cyril sits down to fill his pockets with gold, then can't stand up again because of their weight.
  • Taken for Granite: The Psammead explains that whatever the children wish for will turn into stone at the end of the day. Back in the Good Old Days, children used to wish for only solid, sensible things, like a dinosaur for dinner, and the petrified remains became fossils. This never happens to anything the children wish for, and the Psammead suspects that their wishes are simply "too fanciful" to turn to stone.
  • Taught by Experience: The children wish for a gravel pit full of gold, only to find it's practically impossible to spend (see Arbitrarily Large Bank Account above). The next day, they regroup and go to the Psammead intending to wish for a modest £100 in two-shilling coins.
  • Team Mom: Anthea, to the point that even the Psammead seems to be particularly fond of her.
  • Team Pet: The Psammead, or alternatively, the Lamb.
  • Token Romance: One of the children's misadventures has the unexpected side effect of introducing their housemaid to the man of her dreams. By the end of the book, they're married, causing the children to wonder if that might have been the purpose of their meeting the Psammead.
  • Winged Humanoid: One of the wishes the kids get is to have wings.
  • Worthless Currency: The children wish for gold, and receive vast amount of it. But when they try to spend it in shops, they are told it is "not current coin".

The Phoenix and the Carpet provides examples of:

  • Demoted to Extra: The Psammead pretty much disappears from the story, apart from a couple of 'offscreen' appearances when the Phoenix goes to it for help.
  • Drama-Preserving Handicap: As the carpet can only grant three wishes a day, the children have to be relatively careful about when they use these wishes.
  • Flying Carpet: As well as being able to fly, the carpet can also grant three wishes a day.
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: The carpet brings the kids a lot of cats. Jane and Anthea refuse to tell the carpet to take them away because they find the cats adorable.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Phoenix accidentally sets the theatre on fire
  • The Phoenix: A literal one.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Anthea's seamstress skills allow her to repair the Carpet.

The Story of the Amulet provides examples of:

  • All Just a Dream: After the Babylon queen visits, things get out of hand and a lot of people are killed. Someone says that it's all a dream, to which another person replies that he wishes it was a dream... and luckily the Psammead is on hand to grant that wish.
  • Have We Met Yet?: In one of their trips to the past (not described in detail due to an apparent lack of time), the children apparently met the Phoenix, who doesn't recognise them because it hasn't met them yet.
  • I Gave My Word: The children and an Egyptian priest give their words: the priest by a secret name on a certain altar, and the children say they will do it, which means the same. The priest then declares that there is no such name, so he is not bound, but the Psammead knows that there is, and threatens to call upon it.
  • Mage in Manhattan: In Chapter 8, a queen from ancient Babylon (who doesn't have magical powers, though they do exist in the novel) ends up in contemporary London.
  • Men Don't Cry: The two boys seem to think this, although they do cry after their father leaves.
  • Orichalcum: A metal used by the Atlanteans.
  • Time Travel: The children make various trips back in time to try and acquire the complete amulet from the past.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: The novel ends with the children retrieving the completed amulet from the earliest point in its history where it exists, at which point it merges with the fragment they possess already; prior to this, they had already discovered that the amulet would merge with its other self if its past and future selves were brought into contact, despite the fact that the past amulet no longer exists to become the future one..

Four Kids and It (the 2020 televised version) provides examples of:

  • Cassandra Truth: Maudie often mentions the childrens’ encounters with the ‘sand-monster’ to the parents, who naturally assume she's just making it up.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Smash makes an elaborate wish to be a pop star and doesn’t taken into account that it only lasts until sunset, leaving her stuck in the former Millennium Dome and forced to flee arrest for trespassing.
    • Trent wishes for more money than anyone could imagine and is briefly buried in coins, only for the house to collapse after sunset because of the strain that gold placed on its structure.
  • Generation Xerox: Tristan Trent looks exactly like his great-grandfather.
  • Hour of Power: When rescuing Ros from Trent’s great-grandfather, the group wish for superpowers; Smash has superstrength, Robbie has X-ray vision, Maudie has telekinesis, and Ros has heat vision, and the original kids can shoot fireworks from their hands and fly, all of which are lost once the time-travellers return to the future.
  • Ignorant of Their Own Ignorance: Trent appears unaware that the Psammead’s wishes will only last until sunset.
  • Loving a Shadow: Ros and Smash often express a desire to reunite with their missing mother and father respectively; Smash is left bitter when her father sends her a text that he doesn't have space for her in his new place, and Ros's brother Robbie has to remind Ros that their mother chose to leave them in the first place.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Ros in particular has this when her actions nearly lead to the Psammead dying of the strain of granting Trent's wishes.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Ros’s actions lead to Trent capturing the Psammead.
  • Parents as People: David and Alice have various challenges dealing with their children, but are still good people.
  • Pooled Funds: Defied; Trent makes a wish that leaves him literally buried in money, which he only survives because the sun set before he could suffocate.
  • Stable Time Loop: Ros’s wish to ask the original children for advice leads to Trent’s great-grandfather learning the existence of the Psammead, with his descendant continuing that obsession in the present.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Trent is willing to threaten the children to make the Psammead grant more wishes for him.

Alternative Title(s): The Phoenix And The Carpet, The Story Of The Amulet