Kate Saunders: Five Children on the Western Front (2014)

Five Children on the Western Front

Five Children on the Western Front is a delightful story inspired by E. Nesbit’s famous children’s book Five Children and It. I’m still surprised how much I loved this book. I’m not always keen on sequels of classics, but since I haven’t read Nesbit’s tale yet, I couldn’t compare. And I’m aware that the main character of the book “It” – or Psammead -, the sand fairy, is Nesbit’s creation and not Saunders’, nonetheless her book offers many new elements.

When the five children were younger, they had many adventures with a furry, snooty creature they discovered in a gravel pit. The sand fairy was able to grant wishes and those wishes, which were always over at sunset, transported them back and forth in time. Often with hilarious consequences.

But since then many years have gone by. Cyril, Anthea and Robert are in their twenties, Jane is about sixteen, and the youngest, the Lamb, is eleven and not even the youngest anymore. There’s a sixth child, the nine year-old Edie.

The younger kids were often jealous of their siblings’ adventures with the sand fairy and are overjoyed when they discover the grumpy creature in their gravel pit. It’s the beginning of WWI and the sand fairy is stuck in their world. He cannot go home, he cannot make any wishes. Or only accidental ones. The kids take him home and hide him in a sand bath on the attic.

Like in the first book they have many hilarious adventures. They are even more mysterious this time because the sand fairy can’t control them. Some of the adventures are more troubling than funny. Cyril has enlisted and is soon followed by Robert. More than one wish transports them to the trenches where they become witnesses of the horrors.

The beginning of the book was so lovely and light, I was a bit afraid it wasn’t showing the proper respect for the war, but it turned darker and darker, showing the danger, the seriousness and the consequences of the war. Death and facial disfigurement are as much part of the tale as the changing times— women who leave their homes to become nurses, the first opportunities for women to study medicine.

I’m amazed that Kate Suanders was able to combine two such different moods. The characters are so endearing and their affection for each other is heartwarming. I didn’t want the book to end and will certainly read Nesbit’s story. The sand fairy is such a great creation. He has telescopic eyes, the ears of a bat, long, gangly limbs and a rotund body. He’s smug, nosey, grumpy, selfish and mean. There’s a reason why he returned during the war. He’s done a lot of bad things in his lifetime and has to make amends.

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Kate Saunders wrote an interesting afterword in which she writes how she got the idea. She loved Five Children and It as a child and, later in life, realized that these Edwardian children would be part of the generation that had to go to war and was so heavily decimated. Losing her own son at the age of nineteen, helped her give the book emotional depth.

I really recommend this novel. It’s charming and sad. I thought she did well not to modernize it. The children sound like children of the time, which gives the story a nostalgic feel.

I only hope I won’t think differently about it once I’ve read E. Nesbit’s story.

Have you read E. Nesbit? Which of her books do you like best?

33 thoughts on “Kate Saunders: Five Children on the Western Front (2014)

  1. I never heard of the original, and it’s weird to see fan-fiction actually getting published. That said, your review makes me want to read this. It sounds like it has an interesting perspective on the war, viewed by various people of varying ages. It doesn’t sound like it just tries to capitalize on a famous book.

    • I wouldn’t have called this fan-fiction because Kate Saunders is a very successful author but in a way, that’s probabaly what it is.
      She doesn’t exploit Nesbits book/fame, it’s really something that stands on its own. And of all the many WWI novels I read this stood out. It doesn’t downplay but a child or a squeamish perosn can still read it.
      I hope you’ll like it.

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! I have Nesbit’s ‘Five Children and It’ and a few other books by her. I hope to read them sometime. So nice to know that Kate Saunders got inspired by Nesbit’s classic and wrote this book. It is interesting that is set during the time of the First World War and after a light start it gets darker and darker. I hope you enjoy reading ‘Five Children and It’ I will look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. Thanks for telling me about Kate Saunders book. I will look for it.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I loved this. It’s so charming. I wonder how I will like Five Children and It. I think the idea to revisit them as older children who would, indeed, have been sent to war, was a great idea.
      I loved to read abiut the intercations of the siblings. They are so close.
      I hope you read it some day.

  3. I’ll have to look for this, not only because of your review, but also because the title evokes All Quiet on the Western Front, one of my all-time favorite WWI novels. Do you think it is appropriate for a pre-teen to read?

    • Maybe not too young. At ten I’d say it’s possible. Overall it’s a charming book and even a young child would be able to read it with the exception of the facial mutilation part. It’s not described in a gruesome or graphic way and we don’t “see” it happen but it’s mentioned. So is death and the loss of a limb. But mostly it remains cheerful.
      I love All Quiet on the Western Front. This is its gentle, but poignant, children’s version.
      I’d be interested to read your thoughts.

  4. I’ve read good things about this and I *have* read the original many years ago – so I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for it!

    • I’d never heard of Kate Saunders before and from what I saw she doesn’t write my kind of books. I’m not fond of romance but this was surprisingly well done. I only wanted to read the kindle sample and then order the book but I was so captivated, I downloaded the e-book.

  5. I grew up on Nesbit’s books – and recently reread them with my own children, who liked them despite the hundred years’ gap! This sounds like an interesting ‘next step’ for my children, awakening them to the reality of war.

  6. I’ve not read either one, but I’m greatly intrigued after reading your review. What an interesting premise for a book!
    I believe The Railway Children was made into a film, but I haven’t seen it.

    • It’s a great premise. Five Children and It was made into a movie as well but I?m not tempted. I prefer the sand fairy in my head to the way it looks in the film.

  7. I’ll second Guy’s recommendation of The Railway Children, a favourite from my childhood. Like My Book Strings, I was reminded of All Quiet on the Western Front when I saw the title of your post.

  8. I hadn’t intended to read this book until I read this review . I loved The Railway Children as a child …..and also read The Children’s Book which dealt with her in a less positive light . There is indeed something v poignant in thinking of that generation of Edwardian children.

    • It was such a positive surprise. I never thought I’d like it this much. You can always read the kindle sample, you’ll soon know if you’ll like it as much as I did.
      I’ll have to read The Children’s Book. I had no idea it had something to do with Nesbit.

  9. I never read the original. With that I agree that sequels to classics are often a bad idea.

    When these sequels work however they can really bring back the sprit of the original while breaking new ground.

    As to the different moods reflected in this book. I tend to like it when a novel does that.

  10. I read Edward Eager’s books when I was little (which are so good!), and he was always praising E. Nesbit to the skies. I didn’t love her as much as I loved Edward Eager, I admit, which probably makes me a good target audience for a book like this that expands on the world she created. It sounds good!

  11. How interesting! I have read Kate Saunders’ historical novels, but this was years ago and I wondered if she’d stopped writing. What a dreadful tragedy about her son – maybe that stopped her creativity for a while; it would certainly be understandable. I’ve seen a dramatisation of the E E Nesbit story on the television (again, quite a long time ago) and I’ve read other of her books. Sometimes I get tired of the continuation novels, but this one does sound like it is properly motivated, and that makes a big difference, I think.

    • It’s possible that you’d stop writing when you’ve lost a child. It’s so traumatic .
      I looked her up but didn’t seen any historical novels. She certainly gets the period detail right.
      It’s a charming book and very different from other kinds of sequels like this.

  12. Pingback: Best Novels of 2015 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  13. “The Railway Children” was, and is, my favourite of the E. Nesbit books, but I also loved all three of the “Five Children” books, and, while I am usually wary of modern “sequels” to classic novels, your review has definitely made me want to read this one.

    • Thanks for letting me know about The Railway Children. I’d love to read it.
      I thought Kate Saunders dud a great job. I’d love to hear what you think of it should you read it.

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