Friday, 6 November 2015

Five children on the Western Front - review

Fans of thought-provoking and moving children's fiction are in for a treat with Kate Saunders 'Five Children on the Western Front' which gives a viewpoint of the First World War from a group of younger siblings at home when their two older brothers go off to fight.

The book was published to coincide with hundredth anniversary of the start of the War last year and tells the tale of the War in a way that is engaging for children as young a nine or ten. 

This follow-up to E Nesbit's classic 'Five Children and It', cleverly and poignantly takes central characters from the original classic story and plunges them into a First World War setting. The original cast of characters would have been of the generation of Edwardian children who would have been at the heart of the fighting, so it neatly brings in new characters and a new setting, but with an existing cast that some readers will already be familiar with.

On the home front, younger siblings are at first excited by the news of war. Then, as the war lengthens, its impact takes hold. Change is happening at home all around - from women's rights to social mobility, it's an exciting time to be a child. One of the girls find determination not simply to offer charity to the sick, but to become a doctor. The tennis court is dug up to plant potatoes as shortages bite.

As a historical novel it is a time very rich with possibility.

But the heart of the story is the arrival in the children's lives of a sand fairy - a character taken from the original book, the Psammead. For years the younger children have been hearing stories about him and the adventures they had when he granted wishes. But when he appears back in the children's lives, he is not to take them on exciting adventures. He is unwell and unable to grant many wishes and they must treasure him and look after hiim. 

This great historical novel entwines the social history of the day with the magical elements of the sand fairy. This fantasy twist to the narrative lends a lightness and humour and makes it a really accessible and enjoyable book, which is, ultimately, a sad novel about loss and the impact of the War that packs quite an emotional punch

The Psammead is undoubtedly the star of the show, prickly, ungracious and often unkind, he manages to grant enough wishes so that the children get to visit their older brother at Christmas in the trenches, and there is just enough magic to allow a few happy endings.

It's an emotional family story, that effortlessly juggles a huge cast of characters that you grow to know and love throughout the novel. Some lives may be short, but where they touch, they touch deeply.

Many people will be reading this as a sequel because they loved the original novel. But it stands very well on its own and can be enjoyed as one of the best children's books around that help demonstrate the consequences and social upheaval of the First World War. Those who enjoy historical fiction will love it.

It may also cause children to seek out the original, or some of the other classic E Nesbit stories.

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