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Authors like Edith Nesbit were part of a movement which increasingly accepted that children couldn’t be protected from emotional traumas but worked through them with the help of fantasy. Edith’s children’s characters typically faced difficult or even tragic conflicts and dramas which helped them to learn and grow emotionally. As in her 1906 classic ‘The Railway Children‘ , where three children see their father arrested as a spy and have to leave their London home and live in relative poverty, Nesbit’s children are forced to find resources of courage, ingenuity and love before they can experience a happy ending.
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About as far from the uptight pedant portrayed in the film ‘Saving Mr Banks‘ as it is possible to be, Travers was a poet and actress as well as a prolific novelist.
She was flamboyantly creative and adventurous throughout her life, and before the publication of her first novel she lived among remote American tribes studying their culture and language. She had numerous relationships with men, followed by living with a close female friend in what was described by observers as an ‘ambiguous’ relationship. When that ended, forty-year-old Travers adopted the baby grandson of Irish poet Yeats.
After moving from Australia to England, Travers recreated herself as more English than the English, so it isn’t surprising that her most famous character is that quintessentially English thing: a nanny.
Two London children face a domestic crisis and the perfect nanny literally appears from the sky. Even better, she has a talking umbrella and if she is in the right mood she can do magic. And magic happens just by her being there.
There is a spare, dry wit to Travers’ writing and a darkness which an author like Edith Nesbit would recognise and applaud. Like her creation, Travers didn’t approve of talking down to children.
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She said she first began to write in order to keep her sanity when she was at home with three small children and a chaotic household. She progressed from ‘Changeover’, a farce on the end of Empire, to a magical collection of children’s fantasies set in contemporary homes and families.
Her stories reflected the problems faced by friends of her own children, and were noted for being darkly humorous, with a happy ending.She died in 2011, with her final book half-completed and plans for more to come.
Writers like Edith Nesbit trail-blazed the process of tackling difficult family situations, and later authors like Wynne Jones weren’t afraid to tackle once-controversial subjects such as divorce.
In this story. two brothers and their sister are horrified when their divorced mother remarries to a man they nick-name ‘the ogre’. Even worse, the ogre brings two sons with him who don’t get on with the brothers. Nastiest of all, the five children and two adults have to live together in one small house due to lack of money.
Then the ogre surprises everyone by bringing home two chemistry sets, one for each of the oldest boys. Then they discover that flying ointment really works…and that’s just the beginning.
Charming, funny and irreverent.
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In many ways a man of mystery and conflicting strong ideas, Clive Staples Lewis was an Irishman who was only fully appreciated on the English academic scene but claimed that the English were ‘flippant’.
He yearned to be an author like Tolkien as well as a poet like Yeats. At the same time he was disgusted with the religious divisions in his native Northern Ireland, so only returned there as a visitor. Throughout his life he developed and discarded fascinations with ways of being: Irishness, Northernness, atheism and Christianity.
He married for the first time at the age of fifty-six, having had a decades-long unspecified relationship with a woman twenty-five years his senior, who he called ‘mother’.
Children staying in a strange house discover an alternate world and time-line by walking into a wardrobe in an empty room. So far, so fantastic. But an author like Lewis wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to expound his religious beliefs.
Lewis managed to fill his ‘Chronicles Of Narnia’ with Christian imagery and pagan mythology. Instead of family traumas and financial hardships, the adult spiritual journey which Lewis himself had experienced was played out by the childish characters in his books.
The following authors both produced children’s books which were well-loved and original and deserve more exposure than they currently have.
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Eager was already a well-known lyricist when he began writing children’s fiction. He started to write stories when he was unable to find books which he wanted to read to his own young son, Fritz. He said he was inspired by the stories of Edith Nesbit, and decided that the most enjoyable stories would always feature recognisable children in ‘real’ backgrounds, experiencing extraordinary things.
Four children sharing a dull summer with their parents find a coin and discover that it can offer them half a magic wish, not a complete one. So a wish to be on a desert island means they end up in the desert, and their mother’s wish to go home away from annoying relatives means she is deposited half way home instead. Little by little they learn to ‘manage the magic’ by doubling it.
Eager’s books are refreshing in that they don’t preach or attempt to make any particular statement: they are pure entertainment.
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This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Ada Graves, whose book ‘The House By The Railway’ Edith Nesbit was accused of plagiarising.Ada was related to author and poet Robert Graves, and had a career as a children’s author before marrying and returning to live in British India, where she had been born. She died when she returned to her family home during an earthquake, to look for her daughter, unaware that the child had already been rescued by her Indian nanny.
A group of children see their father arrested and have to move from London to a house in the country next to a railway line. Among other adventures, they avert a disaster by using a red jacket as a warning flag.
There are so many similarities between Ada’s book and Edith’s that Edith might have simply lifted the plot for ‘The Railway Children’ straight from Ada’s earlier story. Also, it is true that ‘The Railway Children’ is quite different to Nesbit’s other work in that it has no supernatural element.
So did Edith plagiarise, even unknowingly? At this distance it’s impossible to be sure. But it’s important that poor Ada is acknowledged for her sweet story of childish triumph over adversity, because after all, her story certainly came first.
These writers prove that the preoccupations of childhood never change. They were able to produce vivid imaginative work which brought magic to the lives of generations of children. And while they did so, they were free to lead varied, grown-up lives.
Have childhood stories changed your life? Please leave your comments below.