Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Carnegie Shadowing - review - Five Children on the Western Front

Flying a solitary Carnegie flag for middle-grade fiction, Kate Saunders' hugely engaging 'Five Children on the Western Front' will have to hold its own if it is to take home the Carnegie Medal as the only book on the list not written with teens or young adults in mind.

This novel about families and wishes is a stunning follow-up to E Nesbit's classic 'Five Children and It' and was published to coincide with hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. Writing a follow-up to such a classic and well-loved story is not a challenge to take up lightly.

Its starting point is to take the original cast of characters, all grown up now and poignantly, of the generation of Edwardian children who would have been at the heart of the fighting, but the narrative cleverly takes up the story of the younger siblings, at first excited by the news of war.  

As a historical novel it is an exiting time very rich with possibility. Change is happening all around - from women's rights to social mobility, it's an exciting time to be a child. One of the girls finds determination not simply to offer charity to the sick, but to become a doctor herself. The tennis court is dug up to plant potatoes as shortages bite. No-one escapes the impact of the war.

But the heart of the story is the arrival in the children's lives of a sand fairy - a magical character taken from the original book, the Psammead, who can move people backwards and forwards in time. 

For years the younger children have been hearing stories about him and the adventures they had when he granted wishes. But when he re-appears it is not to take them on exciting adventures. He is unwell and needs looking after. Perhaps this time he is here with a bigger purpose?

The narrative engagingly entwines the social history of the day and fires up the imagination even more with the magical elements of the sand fairy. Kate Saunders effortlessly juggles a huge cast of characters that you grow to know and love throughout the novel

The fantasy twist 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 punchSome lives may be short, but where they touch, they touch deeply.

The Psammead himself is undoubtedly the star of the show, prickly, ungracious and often unkind, but managing 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.

Will it win?

Does this war story with a magical twist pack enough of an emotional punch, deal realistically with historical social issues, yet still be an absorbing story to enthral younger readers? Can a book for younger readers impress the judges enough?

First published in 2014 it has already garnered awards, winning the Costa Children's Book Award of 2014 and going on to be shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize 2015. So it has already demonstrated it is no lightweight when it comes to prize-winning muscle.
It does all of the above and will be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates thought-provoking and moving children's fiction whatever their age - and is probably one of the best and most accessible books about the First World War, delivering a great sense of the loss and social upheaval, without being grim.

It may also cause children to seek out the original, or some of the other classic E Nesbit stories and may prove to be equally as timeless. Following up a classic and creating a totally new classic? Now that is a seriously impressive achievement.

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