by Vivienne Smith
I am busy reading for next year's UKLA children’s book award at the moment – and I was pleased to see Jacqueline Wilson’s Four Children and It in the parcel from Puffin.
The book is relevant to our purposes here, because Rosalind, the narrator, and one of two main protagonists, is a reader. We know this from the very first sentence:
“What’s that you are reading?” said Smash, grabbing the book out of my hand.
And with an economy of style that seems to me to be one of Wilson’s special talents, we are shown that Smash is disruptive and difficult. Three sentences on we know that Rosalind is not. She is reading E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, - with enjoyment and in the original ( Thank you Peter!) and it is not one whit too difficult for this modern child. She can concentrate.
The book, as you probably know, was written as a tribute to Nesbit’s, which Wilson loved as a child. It borrows Nesbit’s plot wholesale. The children ( this time three and a baby, rather than four) dig up the Psammead, and he grants them wishes which invariably go wrong in some way. One wish – the ability to fly occurs in both stories, though the consequences are different for the modern children.
Despite Wilson’s deceptively easy style, hers is ( I think) the more complex piece of writing. As well as the the story of the wishes, there is another story here of modern family life. This is a step family thrown together for the holidays. Two children share a mother, three a father, and only one child is in its permanent home. There are tensions between the children, between the children and their parents, between the children and their step-parents, and between the two adults about each others' children. Adults feel guilty, children feel rejected, and every one, (except baby Maudie who is gloriously secure) is negotiating a place in this muddle. it is a story of accommodation and compromise and there are no easy answers, even when wishes come true.
And then there is the intertextual complexity. This is a book based on a book, in which the book features as an object and as a story. Even the characters of the original have a part to play when Rosalind wishes she could meet them – and does. This weaving in and out of various levels of story and of time is relatively demanding of the reader.
And look at the skill of the writing itself! ( I chose this passage because it matches the bit Peter included from Nesbit’s original)
At the same time I felt a strange itching, burning feeling on my back. Smash felt behind her. Robbie started scratching his own back and Maudie peered over her shoulder, startled.
“ What is it? said Smash. “What is happening?”
The strange feeling grew stronger so that my shoulder blades pricked fiercely, as if they were being pushed right through my skin. I could actually feel them poking through the thin material of my T-shirt. I twisted round worriedly, and felt something sharp and then soft, like a feather sticking out of a pillow. A feather!
“Oh goodness, I think we are growing wings!” I gasped.
There were two points protruding through my T-shirt now, and once they were free they pushed harder, growing with amazing speed. At first they were tightly rolled up like furled umbrellas, but as they grew, I experienced a dragging aching feeling that made me brace my shoulders, and all at once the long, dark, pointy wings opened wide. I flapped them in the air, creating gusts of wind all around me. I craned my neck in awe of my feathery new wings. They were a beautiful soft blue, shading to navy at the tips. ( pp 251-252)
Wilson makes me feel those wings growing. It is her capacity to make me imagine what it is like to grow wings and what it is like to be caught up in the emotional complexity of many modern day families, that makes her writing worthwhile. So what that the plot is borrowed!
I notice I have said almost nothing reading and readers in the novel. Perhaps next time?