The premise of this 1902 novel: Five kids on vacation in a small English town find a sand-fairy that grants them one wish per day, but each wish disappears at sunset. As it happens, each wish goes horribly wrong, and the kids escape each time through various combinations of quick thinking and wit, dumb luck, profuse apologies, and chasing down the sand fairy to beg for a second wish for the day.
Probably my favorite episode is when the kids wish that their two-year-old brother (nicknamed “Lamb”) were grown. He immediately becomes insufferable as an adult, and insists that he will head into the city for evening drinks, and that his siblings must go home for dinner. The problem is that the spell is set to end at sunset, which would leave an unattended two-year-old at a club bar. The siblings solve the problem by flattening his bike tires, and then sabotaging his effort to pick up an attractive young woman at the bike repair shop.
In a particularly disastrous chapter, news spreads that a neighbor woman has had all her jewels stolen that morning. One of the children, before she can stop herself, wishes that their mother would find “all these lovely things” in her room when she got home from a trip later that day. That one made me squirm a bit.
I did skip the chapter called “Scalps.” One of the children wishes that England had “Red Indians,” who then appear and promptly attack. I can tolerate a bit of archaic language, and just coach my children that we don’t say things like that anymore. But in this chapter, the Indians show up to kill them all, leading to this exchange: “Do you mean to scalp us first and then roast us?” asked Anthea desperately. “Of course!” Redskin opened his eyes at her. “It’s always done.”
Is this just satirizing white people for their simplistic stereotyping of Indians? I’d say no, as the children then escape because they have created fake hair with strips of black fabric, which the Indians then “scalp.” Nesbit writes, “The poor untutored savages had indeed scalped the children. But they had only, so to speak, scalped them of the black calico ringlets!” I know it’s supposed to be silly, but it’s done with a very nasty stereotype I don’t want in my kids’ heads.
Though I won’t leave this one on the shelf for my kids to find, the rest of the book is worth reading aloud. Nesbit creates clever scenarios that are imaginative and funny, and we all enjoyed it. Her kids mostly act like kids, and the dialogue is fun, rather than just moving the story along. The idea of Unintended Consequences is great for kids’ imagination, plus it raises moral questions that could make for good discussion starters.
Two added bonuses in finding an older book that holds up well. One is that it is available for free on Project Gutenberg, so I was able to read it on the tablet without having to buy it or check out a paper version at the library. The other is that the language is just archaic enough that it keeps kids on their toes, and helps expand their language skills for hearing and reading different styles of English prose.