GRATEFUL TO E. NESBIT -- by Jane Kelley

My mother always wanted me to read her favorite children's novel, The Bastable Children by E. Nesbit. But why would I want to look inside these covers?

Bastable? What kind of name is that? No picture? No promise of anything fun? No thanks. 

So I didn't read it until decades later when I was writing kids novels myself. In my second book, The Girl Behind The Glass, I imagined a ghost who had a beloved book. Since that ghost was about my mother's age, I decided to use my mother's own favorite. 

The very first page hooked me. "We are the Bastables. There are six of us besides father. Our mother is dead, and if you think we don't care because I don't tell you much about her, you only show that you do not understand people at all."

E. Nesbit does understand people. She wrote her books over a hundred years ago. The children who are the heroes of her stories wore different clothes and ate puddings. 

"The uncle was very fierce with the pudding." 

And yet we know them. As E. Nesbit said, "When I was a little child I used to pray fervently, tearfully, that when I should be grown up I might never forget what I thought and felt and suffered then."

Her ability to depict the emotional reality of sibling squabbles is not why her books are so beloved. Yes, there is a pudding in that illustration, but there is also a sword. As the book's cheeky narrator said, "The best part of books is when things are happening. That is the best part of real things too."

Things happen. Do they ever! The kids encounter magic carpets, treasure hunting, time travels, and a very grumpy Psammead, which is a sand fairy. It reluctantly grants the children wishes that never quite turn out the way they're supposed to. 
The Psammead.

Nesbit paid attention to the reality. The magic in her books seems real because she included fascinating details. When the kids have a magic carpet, it's a carpet that has been repaired. The rewoven section isn't as powerful, and so whoever sits on that part doesn't travel with the rest. What a brilliant detail! Gore Vidal wrote in the NY Review of Books: "Though a child will gladly accept a fantastic premise, he will insist that the working out of it be entirely consistent with the premise." 

Children still want magic. All readers do. Eleanor Fitzsimons wrote in the Irish Times: "Nesbit offered us the potential for magic at a time in our lives when the boundary between reality and imagination is at its most porous."

"The key to Nesbit's appeal is her ability to write just like one of us. The adventures she describes, though clearly impossible, feel utterly authentic. Surely they could happen to you or me if we were fortunate enough to dig up a grumpy Psammead or stumble upon a broken amulet in an old junk shop."

We want magic. We need magic. But in order for us readers to fully embrace that magic, it needs to be grounded in reality. 

Like so many other authors who admire E. Nesbit -- from C. S. Lewis to J. K. Rowling -- I try to include magic in my books without sacrificing realism. Yes it's more challenging. But reality makes it more interesting. Just like that carpet that doesn't always take you where you expect to go.


  1. It's been waiting on our shelf for a shove from you!
    Magic with real consequences is the order of the day...

    1. Wonderful! And yes, let's be open to finding magic.

  2. This is so perfect. I love old books--they can teach so much about storytelling.


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