In this month's Inspirations from the Bookshelf, Claire Watts tell us why she looks to British Edwardian author E Nesbit for inspiration.


I came to E Nesbit from TV. She was one of those novelists whose work was always being serialised by the BBC when I was growing up in the seventies. I fell at once for the magic and for the children. I hesitate to call them ‘ordinary’ children, because of course these are middle-class Edwardian children with servants and nurseries – even the fallen-on-hard-times Bastables or the Railway Children are laughably far from poor. But they do feel ordinary. They squabble and sulk and are kind and hungry and envious and thoughtless and joyful. And they have such fun! There’s none of the stuffiness or moralising common to Victorian and Edwardian children’s books. These are real children who happen to have adventures. And whether their adventures are magic or not, the children react in very real ways to whatever situation they fall into: they get hungry and tired and dirty and want their own comfortable beds and wonder how on earth they are going to explain things to the grown-ups.



And because the children feel real, the magic feels real too.



Folio Society edition of Five Children and It

This juxtaposition of the fantastic with the ordinary is, for me, at the very heart of what I love in children’s books. Oh, I love pure fantasy too and historical fiction, and I dip a toe into contemporary occasionally, but any book where contemporary children encounter magic in the real world is going to shoot straight to the top of my to-be-read pile. A quick glance at my bookshelves shows me Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard, Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Dick King-Smith’s The Queen’s NoseCS Lewis (especially the most Nesbit-like The Magician’s Nephew), Mary Poppins and all of Alan Garner.



But back to those Nesbit children. Listen to them. Here’s the narrator of The Treasure Seekers:


It is one of us that tells this story – but I shall not tell you which: only at the very end perhaps I will. While the story is going on you may be trying to guess, only I bet you don’t.
(We already know it’s Oswald because he’s bigged up his character so much, and occasionally he slips and says ‘I’!)



Here’s Anthea from The Phoenix and the Carpet when her baby brother has gone somewhere unknown on the magic carpet and she has to face her mother:


Anthea tried to be brave. She tried to say that the Lamb and Robert were out. Perhaps she tried too hard. Anyway when she opened her mouth no words came. So she stood with her mouth open. It seemed easier to keep from crying with one’s mouth in that unusual position.
True the language and the sensibilities are of another age, but the tone is so modern, the way the author skips easily from head to head, the interactions of the characters with each other and with the adults around them. The books are funny too: the scrapes the children get into whether magic or not, the way so often the adults don’t notice the magic that’s happening under their very noses.



I know omniscient narrators are rather out of fashion, but if you could make your narrator as light and fresh and funny as Nesbit...

Of all the cast-off manuscripts I’ve written, many of the early ones are E Nesbit clones. One in particular substitutes three girls very like my own daughters for the Nesbit family and a magic ring for the Psammead/Carpet/Phoenix. It took me a while to work this out of my system and figure out what it was about these books that made such a strong impression on my child self and why I feel compelled to return to these themes in my own writing. The conclusion I have come to is that I aspire to write real children in real families who encounter magic within the real world.



Always one of my favourites

E Nesbit regularly wrote short stories for adults and children. Some of the most enduring are these fairy tales which mix the fairy tale world with contemporary reality.


And now I’ve got all my E Nesbit books down from the shelf, I think it’s probably time to immerse myself in her world again. Always a joy!

Header illustration by HR Millar from The Enchanted Castle.


Claire Watts
 is the Editor of Words & Pictures.

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