Review - Four Children and It by Jacqueline Wilson, Puffin, #163;12.99
Oh, unadulterated joy! One of the best children's authors around has written a follow-up to the best children's novel of all time.
I know. There are almost as many opinions about what is the best children's novel as there are children's novels. But for the length of this article, I am going to ask you to go along with my literary credo: that E. Nesbit's Five Children and It is the best children's novel of all time.
Jacqueline Wilson's Four Children and It is not a sequel. Heaven forefend. Nesbit wrote two of those herself (joint second-best children's novels of all time). Instead, it is at once a response to Nesbit and also, unequivocally, a Jacqueline Wilson novel.
And so we have siblings Rosalind and Robbie spending the summer with their father, his new wife, their half-sister Maudie and their stepsister Smash, while their mother attends Open University summer school. This is a typically Wilsonesque jigsaw family. But it is also a tribute to Nesbit: most of her books involve at least one absent parent.
During a family picnic in the woods, Wilson's children uncover the Psammead, the wish-granting It of Nesbit's novel. Like the five children before them, Wilson's four make a succession of wishes; as with their predecessors, the results are not always what they anticipate.
Some of their wishes are decidedly contemporary. They ask, for example, to be rich and famous, and subsequently spend the day riding in a limo and shopping at Harrods. But other wishes reveal the consistency of childhood fantasy: like Nesbit's children, Wilson's wish for wings. Her children, however, have to cope with a man wanting to sell their story to the tabloids.
The best section of Four Children sees Wilson's children meet Nesbit's. The 21st-century children, accompanied by their parents on every trip to the woods, marvel at their Edwardian counterparts' freedom to roam the countryside at will.
While the modern children's wishes do not always go as planned, their scrapes and misadventures are rarely as dramatic as their predecessors'. They do not need to be. They are also dealing with the everyday drama of a fractured family, and it is here that the real emotion of the novel lies.
This is the point. Wilson is not Nesbit; she is not trying to be Nesbit. I suspect she would be the first person to point out that her four children can never replace the original five.
But this is a loving tribute, peppered with satisfying Five Children in-jokes ("tank-oo", says Maudie, just like Nesbit's similarly aged fifth child). And, until the Psammead can wish Nesbit back to life, this is a rather glorious consolation prize.