Five Children and It is a children's story by E. Nesbit, published in 1902. Like her earlier story family, the Bastables from The Story of the Treasure Seekers, these children got into scrapes and tried to do the right thing and jumped to absurd conclusions, and performed hare-brained experiments, but unlike the mundane Bastables, these children (I can't find a surname for them) got involved with Magic in some form or another.

Their first adventure was Five Children and It, and it was followed by The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet. The five children are Robert, Anthea (or Panther), Jane, Cyril, and the Lamb, who is a baby (and whose real names are Hilary and St Maur and Devereux, but those are only used when he's a grown-up man, which he is for a short time, much to the chagrin of his elder siblings). It is a psammead, a sand-fairy, and a more than usually grumpy and tricksy one at that.

Once sand-fairies were common, and children would go out and catch them and wish for sensible mundane things like a Pterodactyl for breakfast or Megatherium steaks for dinner. Now their numbers have declined precipitously, and one of the last psammeads was having a very nice long rest in the dry sand of a gravel-pit, where it had retreated from the danger of little children of olden times letting moats into the sandcastles they built for psammeads. For as you probably know, even a small amount of water can be fatal to a psammead.

It's a curious creature, a kind of tubby spidery monkey with bat's ears and eyes on stalks, and it can grant them wishes. Since this involves great expenditure of energy in personal stress, it's rather vexed at the silly wishes the children inevitably make, and somehow none of them go quite right. The wishes only last the day.

The first: to be as beautiful as the day. So no-one recognises them, and this isn't much use. Next, the quarry full of gold coins; and as these can't be carried away, and the very few they do take aren't accepted in shops, by quite ordinary, unmagical shopkeepers, this wish too produces nothing but frustration.

They all love the Lamb, but he is a nuisance to be taking care of when no-one else wants him and they're stuck looking after him while they go on adventures. Wishing everyone wanted the Lamb, however, produces a few kidnappings and run-ins with childless great ladies and a band of gypsies. Now E. Nesbit was a very kind and liberal lady for 1902, and she makes quite sure there are good and bad gypsies, often in the same gypsy, just like everyone else in the world.

Wings? Well they were fun while they were flying, until they got a very long way from home and realised that to eat they would need to steal food from orchards, or off windowsills, or some such device they couldn't square their well-brought-up consciences with. And having a post-prandial nap on a church roof as the sun went down and their wings went away gets them into trouble with a rather confused vicar.

Wishing that Robert was bigger than the baker's boy who was bullying him meant that, once more, they had to hide away until the effect wore off, or see how they could turn the calamity to their advantage: they hired him off to a circus.

Wishing there were real live Indians (whoo-whoo-whoo) in England, or that they were in a besieged castle, would have produced startling effects on the servants who looked after their house, if they hadn't had the forethought to wish that the servants never noticed anything unusual. This also presented a problem when nurse carried away the grown-up Lamb.

They end this charming and very readable story by solving most of the problems they've created: wishing people would forget about the stolen jewels, and that no-one would ever tell about the psammead, and so on. They do meet him again, in different and less dangerous circumstances, in another book.

Originally published by T. Fisher Unwin, 1902, now reprinted in Puffin, with the original illustrations by H.R. Millar.

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