Five Children on the Western Front, Hardback Book
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


This is an epic, heart-wrenching follow-on from E. Nesbit's Five Children and It stories. The five children have grown up and World War I has begun in earnest.

Cyril is off to fight, Anthea is at art college, Robert is a Cambridge scholar and Jane is at high school.

The Lamb is the grown up age of 11, and he has a little sister, Edith, in tow.

The sand fairy has become a creature of stories ...until, for the first time in 10 years, he suddenly reappears.

The siblings are pleased to have something to take their minds off the war, but this time the Psammead is here for a reason, and his magic might have a more serious purpose.

Before this last adventure ends, all will be changed, and the two younger children will have seen the Great War from every possible viewpoint - factory-workers, soldiers, nurses and ambulance drivers, and the people left at home, and the war's impact will be felt right at the heart of their family.


  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Fantasy
  • ISBN: 9780571310951

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I read a lot of E. Nesbit when I was about eight or nine years old. At the time, I never really noticed that most of her books follow a reliable - even repetitive - pattern (short story mini-adventures of siblings strung out into a novel, often with a grumpy magical creature involved), that her language and attitude is distinctly upper-class, or that they wouldn't really work outside of their own era. The children Nesbit depicts are both freed from the Victorian rules of their parents and more restricted than children of the mid-20th century, and as such, they live in a sort of golden, idyllic England that only existed for a very brief fragment of time...and possibly, only in the rose-tinted glow of fiction. Kate Saunders' <i>Five Children on the Western Front</i> is both an homage and a goodbye to this twilight time. It is actually inaccurately named; it should be <i>Six Children on the Western Front</i>, with the addition to Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and the Lamb of a new sibling, Edie. This time, it is Edie and the Lamb who discover the family's old acquaintance, the Psammead, who has lost all of its magic abilities and is trapped in 1914. Why - and what they do about it - is, at least, one of the major strands of the novel, although possibly the least effective. What I expected when I requested this book from the library was a novel written for adults, one of those books like Geoff Ryman's <i>Was</i> that looks back on a childhood classic with a wistful, knowing, even unsettling air. And there are certainly moments of that here, especially as the story goes on. However, I was extremely surprised to discover that Saunders has actually written a children's book, with a fairly convincing impression of Nesbit's own authorial voice - and while that is often charming, and occasionally even disarming in more tragic moments, it's got its share of problems, too. The upper-class "jolly-hockey-sticks" quality so imbued in the children's language can jar in moments of pathos, and there's an odd tendency - especially in the Psammead's stories of its own past - for Saunders to show instead of tell. It's not a deal-breaker, but it does make some of the book's revelations feel a little bit inconsequential. There's a somewhat heavier book locked away in this one, and I can't help thinking it would have been just a little bit more satisfying. That said, what Saunders has written is certainly very readable, and it is an interesting way of presenting World War I to the child audience. The Psammead itself is utilized as a sort of child reader surrogate, starting off totally solipsistic and learning, over the course of the novel, to grow and care more about the humans who are so devastated by the war's progress. (Again, some of this transition seems a little bit sudden; even the Psammead's speech patterns become more eloquent and emotive in a very short span of pages.) There are moments of both joy and horror that Saunders carries off with considerable aplomb, and one simple, heart-breaking image at the end of the story that pretty much makes the whole thing worthwhile. It is completely unsurprising to learn, in the afterword, that Saunders' own son died in 2012, and although she doesn't make the connection explicit, it's impossible not to read that as a catalyst for her fictional examination of lost childhood. As a standalone book, I'm not entirely sure <i>Five Children on the Western Front</i> "works" - but it comes close. As a modern-day-hindsight sequel to Nesbit's classic, however, it has a lot of merit. It will mean the most to those who, when young, cherished the stories of Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and the Lamb, their golden age adventures of time travel and misbegotten wishes, and the little sand fairy who became their friend.