Enid Blyton, Food and Ginger Beer

I’m no Enid Blyton apologist when it comes to word echo and other matters of style, but Enid Blyton never wrote the phrase ‘lashings of ginger beer’. This phrase was used in a popular parody called Five Go Mad In Dorset, and is now often mistakenly attributed to the author herself.

Enid Blyton ginger beer
an advertisement for commercially produced ginger ale from 1894


Enid Blyton did use the word ‘lashings’, and there was a lot of ginger beer. I also remember lemonade, but what was it the children were actually drinking? Well, it wasn’t 7UP. The lemonade consumed by the Famous Five would have been sugar and lemon juice mixed in cold water, not the very high sugar carbonated variety. That’s simple enough to make. What about the ginger beer? Was it alcoholic? Were the children getting drunk, imagining those pixies, goblins and mushroom rings with lands at the tops of trees and chairs that grew wings?

In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, the Swallows pretend that they’re drinking ‘grog’ instead of ginger beer. (This is all part of their pirate fantasy.)

Enid Blyton food drink schweppe's advertisement
Do you call it fizzy drink, soda or pop? In 1894 it was called ‘table water’.

To make traditionally brewed, homemade ginger beer, you will also need some lemons. Lemons plus ginger root and sugar and cream of tartar and brewer’s yeast. You can find a recipe for it here. The fizziness comes from the fermentation process, and required about four days to make — these are cooking skills which have been lost today. But our guts coevolved with the bacteria found in fermented foods and we should probably to go back to eating more of them to achieve well-balanced guts. That fermented stuff would not have been as sweet as today’s beverages by far, despite requiring quite a bit of sugar — that’s because bacteria eat the sugars in order to populate. (Hence, traditionally made sauerkraut is so sour — the bacteria has eaten any fructose out of it.)

Ginger Beer Brew

There probably was a bit of alcohol in it if left for weeks, but if left for less than a week the alcohol is negligible. Basically, we don’t really know if Joe, Bessie and Fanny were getting pissed when they took a picnic into the woods, because we didn’t know how long it had been brewed for.

Edith Nesbit was also a fan of ginger beer. It makes me wince when Robert uses it to wash sand out of Lamb’s eyes, but remember it wasn’t the super fizzy stuff you’re probably thinking of:

The thoughtful Robert had brought one solid brown bottle of ginger-beer with him, relying on a thirst that had never yet failed him. This had to be uncorked hurriedly — it was the only wet thing within reach, and it was necessary to wash the sand out of the Lamb’s eyes somehow. Of course the ginger hurt horribly, and he howled more than ever. And, amid his anguish of kicking, the bottle was upset and the beautiful ginger-beer frothed out into the sand and was lost for ever.

Five Children and It

Australians were busy making their own ginger fizzy drinks, lest you think it was limited to the British Isles:

Ginger ale advertisement from 1880
from 1880

Food In The Work Of Enid Blyton

Blyton’s most prolific period of writing took place during the war era when food rationing meant that the majority of people in England were eating less than they had throughout the whole of the twentieth century. Following the outbreak of WW2, food rationing began in January 1940 and continued until 1954. The average weekly rations consisted of one shilling and sixpence worth of meat, eight ounces of sugar, four ounces of butter or fat, one egg, one ounce of cheese, with jam and honey also heavily rationed. Fresh vegetables were in short supply, unless grown in the home vegetable garden.

While the Famous Five were consuming fat red radishes, their readers were being fed banana sandwiches made with parsnips and banana essence or carrot tart glazed with lemon jelly to make a pudding, and while the Secret Seven breakfasted off well-buttered home-baked bread with chunky marmalade, their devotees never even saw fruit like oranges and bananas and had to make do with the infamous Woolton Pie, a combination of carrots, parsnips, turnips, and potatoes, covered with white sauce and pastry.

— Barker

[…] Blyton can hardly be portraying the period realistically. […] the original appeal of Blyton’s food fantasies was intensified by the reader’s knowledge that their own family teatime was never likely to be as scrumptious as the feast Blyton served for them. And, for contemporary readers, the appeal lies in the huge quantities and the exoticism of the homemade foods in her narratives which, because of healthy-eating discourses and the lack of time generally available in contemporary households to produce such meals, are usually denied them. From this perspective it can be seen that a large proportion of the readers’ enjoyment is vicarious, a form of voyeurism, a chance to experience gluttony second-hand.

— Carolyn Daniels, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature


Enid Blyton and Froebel Training

Enid Blyton would have had all the skills of a good housekeeper, even if she preferred to write instead. As a student teacher Blyton received Froebel training, which encourages housekeeping, cooking, gardening and farming as a means of expression for young children.

Blyton’s ideal was one in which the earth-mother or a substitute earth mother provides food (preferably home-grown) for her cubs.

— Barker

Mothers in Enid Blyton’s books tend to be plump, good at home-making and cheerful. While the children were out having their adventures, we can guess at what the mothers were doing: They were in the kitchen, fermenting fizzy beverages and making fruit cakes.

The History And Influence Of Cinderella

“Cinderella” is a classic rags-to-riches tale and can be found, written straight or subverted, throughout the history of literature. It’s worth pointing out that Cinderella wasn’t truly from ‘rags’. She was related to middle class people, so was at least middle class herself. No one wants to hear about actual starvation, rickets and whatnot at bedtime. This is a middle-class-to-aristocrat tale.


Cinderella Is From China

Although we think of Cinderella as a quintessential European fairytale, it originates from China. If you’ve ever read the novel Chinese Cinderella, this renders the title a little moot!

Chinese Cinderella
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Ma is a memoir, but uses the term ‘Cinderella’ because the English speaking audience would be familiar. The reader knows the archetype. We immediately presume her step-mother is wicked. (Of course we’re only getting one side of the story.)

The Chinese title is Ye Xian (English speakers can approximate the sound by saying ‘Ye Shen’). The plot originated in the 5th century, which makes it about 1500 years old. This is a tale from the end of the ancient world, and marks the very beginning of when stories began to be written down. (Known also as the early modern era.) In Ye Xian Cinderella has a golden fish in a pond. She likes to go and talk to this fish, imagining it’s her dead mother. Her tears mingle with the water in the pond. She lives with a wicked stepmother who hates her, and as an act of cruelty the mother kills the beloved fish/spirit mother, cooks it and serves it up to Cinderella who is made to eat it. An old travelling man happens by and says, “Do not fear, the bones of the fish have great power.” He tells her to take them and use them at great need. The rest of the story is as we know it today in the West. Cinderella ends up asking for help from the bones (rather than a fairy godmother). The dress she wears to the ball is golden like fish scales. It’s no real surprise to learn that Cinderella comes from China when you consider the degree to which (small) feet have traditionally been fetishised on the Chinese continent. The Chinese story does continue past Cinderella’s marriage to the handsome prince. Unlike European stories, Chinese fairytales have tended to continue past the happily ever after = marriage. In the Chinese Cinderella, there are problems in the marriage because the king is jealous of those magical fish bones. He ends up throwing the bones away so he can have his wife to himself. He is coercively controlling, in other words. Not a happy ending at all. (At least, not for women.)

How did Ye Xian make it to Europe?

The story of Cinderella makes its way from China across to Europe along the silk roads, together with the silks, spices and diseases. Marco Polo was famously one of the first Europeans to penetrate China. He returned to Venice in 1290. We can see the beginnings of the earliest Cinderella stories in Europe from the early 1300s.

The tale was written down by Giambatissa Basile in Italy in the 1500s. There is now no mention of the golden slipper. The Chinese small foot fetish thing wasn’t a thing in Italy you see, so it didn’t survive. That’s not to say that footwear wasn’t associated with women’s sexuality. Basile’s heroine does wear very high heels to keep her skirts from being muddied. Basile wrote down his tales in Neapolitan, a very rare dialect. His versions weren’t translated into other languages until the 19th century.

Perhaps because Neapolitan was a rare dialect, Charles Perrault’s French version of Cinderella is more famous. No one knows how French storytellers were able to get their hands on the Neapolitan tale. There must have been someone who could both read Neapolitan and speak French, but that storyteller has been lost in history. (Perhaps because she was a woman.)

Perrault’s tongue-in-cheek attitude makes it clear that he himself was sophisticated enough to find the story of Cinderella a little silly, but many popular versions of the story simply disregard Perrault’s tone and focus on the cheerful optimism of the events themselves. – Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

To read Perrault’s version online, see Project Gutenberg.

In Romania there’s a version called Fairy White. The girl who is mistreated only has a cow (called Fairy White). The stepmother serves the cow to Cinderella character. So the Romanians remember — from the original Chinese tale — that the girl has to cannibalise her fairy spirit.

In Italy the story gets sexy. Oftentimes the violence and cruelty in Cinderella tales was more akin to horror comedy such as we see coming mainly out of America today, notably in TV series like Dexter and Santa Clarita Diet.

The Grimm Brothers’ version was transcribed from the oral retelling delivered by a very old, very poor woman. It was written down October 1810. Theirs is a far more vivid, dark and wicked tale than the version by Perrault — is this because the woman who told it was herself living in dire circumstances?  The Grimm title translates to “Ash Fool” (Aschenputtel). In this version the girl has golden slippers. The Grimms oral source was not the French tale but came from China, bypassing Europe altogether. This shows that there are different streams and tracks for the migration of fairytales – following the various silk roads.

The Shoes

This tale is also sometimes known as The Little Glass Slipper.

The glass slipper in the French retelling makes the story so memorable. Glass was always extremely rare, fragile and expensive. It really came from Venice, just as the story did. Venice was the hub of the world’s trade and also of storytelling. Stories came from places like Persia via Venice and disseminated elsewhere. The glass makes the girl perfect and rare.

The shoes have an element of cruelty/fetishism to them. This is especially true in the Grimm version. It’s all about how tiny the shoe is. When the prince comes and tries to put the step sisters’ feet into it the feet won’t fit. The mother tells the first step sister to chop off her toes. So she does. The doves that had helped Cinderella say ‘Too wit too woo, there’s blood in the shoe!” ruining it, for both step sisters, who have both chopped their own toes off.

Glass may have been a mistranslation of ‘fur’ from French.

Why Does The Tale Of Cinderella Survive?

This is a story of justice being served. A girl who is mistreated and has nothing — a journey towards being loved and having a happy home of her own. This is a universal longing.

Cinderella paints some of the worst passions that can enter into the human breast, and of which little children should if possible be totally ignorant; such as envy, jealousy, a dislike to mothers-in-law and half-sisters, vanity, a love of dress, etc., etc. — a lady who wrote to Mrs Trimmer’s Guardian of Education in the 18th century

In the real world, underdogs don’t often win, for the simple reason that those who are powerful use their power to control things. But the magical elements in fairy tales allow events to take place that couldn’t easily happen in real life. […] the magic in fairy tales isn’t capricious. In fact, the laws of physics or logic are suspended only to get the ‘good’ characters into trouble or to help them get out of trouble, or both. Pumpkins become coaches only when underdogs like Cinderella are in enough trouble to need a suspension of reality; the magic allows her to triumph, and then it stops. – The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

Continue reading “The History And Influence Of Cinderella”

Domestic Dramas In Children’s Literature

While adventure stories were originally written for boys, domestic dramas were written for girls.


Adventure stories are linear. The hero starts the story by leaving. He often finds himself in a new home after completing his journey. This is a linear plot. In contrast, domestic dramas are circularDomestic stories are home-away-home stories, with the implication that a girl’s proper place (indeed, only place) is in the homeThe chapters of domestic stories tend to be episodic rather than suspenseful, a la Anne of Green Gables, in which a number of the scenes could be switched around and it wouldn’t really matter to the timeline of the plot. Domestic dramas emphasise the seasons, since seasons are themselves cyclical and therefore circular.

For more on the major plot shapes in children’s literature see this post.


Even today, stories thought to be more popular with men tend to feature stronger narrative drive. Breaking Bad, for instance, has recently been a very popular fictional work among men and women alike, and its heroes are men. But the women of Breaking Bad exist mainly as wifely opponents, with the addition of a non-wife female role only in the final season (Lydia). Breaking Bad has episodic elements to it — each episode features a different self-contained plot such as a factory heist to steal a drum full of chemicals, or a visit to the guy with the gold tooth to blow up his lair. At the end of each of these episodes, Walter White returns to his home. As the series progresses it becomes more and more linear. Walter White does not end up back in the home.

Breaking Bad

We might compare and contrast Orange Is The New Black for a modern television drama starring women, ‘for’ women. This is a far more episodic show. Though there is a linear narrative holding the scenes together, the audience derives pleasure not from intense curiosity about what’s about to happen next, but in enjoying the moment — the humour and the dialogue of each scene.

Orange Is The New Black

There are of course genre differences between Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black, but it’s no coincidence that one stars men and the other stars women; there is a long history of just this sort of gender division in our popular fiction.



  • The Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell — a sentimental, religious story. A girl is sent to live with a country aunt after her mother is sent away to die.
  • The Lamplighter by Maria Cummins — Gerty is dragged up by a brutal woman in a Boston slum, popular on both sides of the Atlantic. (Read online.)
  • The works of Miss Charlotte M. Yonge — a very ‘Victorian’ woman, believing in the inferiority of females. She edited a magazine for girls called The Monthly Packet for more than 40 years. (See it online.) Considering her works are now out of print and seldom read, she was very popular in her time. She wrote The Daisy Chain, which is an important forerunner to Little Women.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott — the first two books in this series have been an enduring success. As well as sermonising, the stories feature human reaction against sermonising, which is probably part of their longevity. The character of Laurie is probably a precursor to the likes of Edward Cullen — not entirely fleshed out as a male character, but filling girlhood dreams of boys at a certain developmental stage. This series set the tone for many girls’ books to follow.
  • Elsie Dinsmore by Martha Finlay — a series about a tearful eight-year-old who is an extreme goody-goody.
Elsie Dinsmore Number 6
Modern cover model looks a lot like Elaine Benes to me, though I doubt there are many similarities.
  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge — starts off active and ‘feisty’ but ends up married to a handsome naval officer as the series continues.
  • The Gypsy Series by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps — the heroine Gypsy Breynton is an appealing and sporty main character, but there’s no realistic place for her one she is past adolescence, so she ends up supporting her brother as he goes off to Yale.

Gypsy Breyton sopping wet


  • Three Vassar Girls Abroad — the first story to feature young women at university, as was happening in the real world with the admission of women to Vassar College and other women’s colleges in America.
  • Little Prudy by Sophie May — for younger readers. Prudy is mischievous and fired with enthusiasm, perhaps a precursor to the likes of Junie B Jones
  • The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney — notable for being the first story about genuinely poor people rather than just ‘hard up’.
  • Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner — the first notable Australian story of this kind, starring model children,  though it reads as quite English, since the father was English.
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin — very similar to Anne of Green Gables, though it came first
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery — Anne exemplifies the ‘Ugly Duckling’ plot, not present in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Later books in the series have been described as ‘sentimentally dishonest’.
  • Jackanapes by Mrs. Ewing — a later Victorian work. A low-tension story about a boy and his growth into manhood with a war setting.
  • The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs Molesworth — Griselda goes to live with her two old-maid aunts in an old-fashioned house. She gets bored and enters into a fantasy world with a real-life friend who has come to live nearby.
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett — similar to Mrs Ewing and Mrs Molesworth but by a much more powerful writer. This book is described as ‘namby pamby’ but the main character isn’t all that odious, apparently, if you read the story. Instead,  he is likeable and unaffected and has left-wing politics for his class. The moral is that the only true nobility is within oneself. A Little Princess is like Fauntleroy but in reverse — a story about a girl who goes from aristocracy to the street. The moral is exactly the same. The Secret Garden was written 20 years after Burnett’s first, and is a lot more complex. Mary Lennox has to struggle before achieving a heroine’s status, whereas for the other two main characters it came naturally. The Secret Garden does not espouse Victorian values, in which children should be seen and not heard and do as they’re told. Instead, the book encourages self-reliance and cooperation, which may explain its enduring appeal.

Little Lord Fauntleroy

  • The function of domestic dramas was to teach girls that a home life is a glamorous one, and to give them a glimpse of life outside the home, presumably so they’d be happy to stay inside the home.
  • But looking closely at these stories, they weren’t really about promoting how wonderful it was to scrub and cook and look after babies — the absolute ideal has always been that these tasks are done by ‘some other woman’ rather than the heroine.
  • There’s no doubt that most reading girls would have been reading adventure stories too, especially if they had brothers. Unfortunately for them, they never got to see themselves in those stories, except as annoying mothers who needed to be broken away from.
  • The more successful domestic dramas were less pious and had more action, which shows what girl readers really wanted, despite what was thought to be good for them. For example, the character of Nancy (a friend to the heroine) made The Wide, Wide World successful because she was a bit of a tearaway, and Gerty of The Lamplighter was also a wild child.
  • “Domestic” does not necessarily mean “bliss” in a children’s book. From the mid 20th Century authors didn’t shy away from portraying threats to young characters’ well-being. But even earlier than that, intimacy didn’t equal peace.
  • Domesticity has always been considered an unstable state. The word itself has meant different things in different eras (think of today’s common usage, as police terminology). It has gone from ideal to pejorative.






Allegory = Extreme Metaphor

What Does Allegory Mean?

Allegorical means, among many other things, that the characters, worlds, actions and objects are, of necessity, highly metaphorical. That doesn’t mean they aren’t unique or created by the writer. It means the symbols have references that echo against previous symbols, often deep in the audience’s mind.

Allegorical also means ‘applicable to our modern world and time’.

Good stories have elements that are founded on the thematic line and oppositions. This especially applies to allegory. For example, for Tolkien, Christian thematic structure emphasises good versus evil.

Continue reading “Allegory = Extreme Metaphor”

A Brief History Of Animals In Literature

Animals are divided into…

• those that belong to the Emperor,
• embalmed ones,
• those that are trained,
• suckling pigs,
• mermaids,
• fabulous ones,
• stray dogs,
• those included in the present classification,
• those that tremble as if they were mad,
• innumerable ones,
• those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
• others,
• those that have just broken a flower vase,
• those that from a long way off look like flies.
from the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge by Jorge Luis Borges

The Evolution Of Animals In Stories Over Time

1. Animals are magical. See folklore and fairy tales. They take over human identities with their magic.

2. Animals are amusing. Animals are no longer objects but characters in their own right. Now they are being used to show up human foibles. (Mrs Gatty, Charles Kingsley)

3. Guilt. Animals in stories are there to show us all our human weakness, and also how animals should properly be treated. (Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Sarah Trimmer’s religious stories (1782-1819). Other writers such as George Orwell use them as pawns in satire (Animal Farm). Other writers  allow animals to retaliate against humans who have treated them badly (Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds, The Chronicles of Narnia).

Animal stories rose as religious stories declined in popularity.


Fables go way back, of course. But when it comes to published work, the advent of animals in literature, it all started happening from the mid 1700s. Black Beauty started a trend.

The first dog book was The History of Pompey the Little (1751)

Black Beauty is the first real animal novel (1877)

The Jungle Book (1893) is the first attempt to enter an animal world

The Story of Dr Dolittle (1922) is the first to consider animal rights

Mary Plain (1930) is the first animal (a bear) to share the human one

American Childhood From The Late 19th Century

  • American methods of child-rearing were far more lenient than in Britain.
  • Although American ladies’ journals began to promote slenderness and weight control for women in the 1890s, it wasn’t considered necessary to restrict the diet of children.
  • Medical experts advised parents to make sure their children — particularly boys — were not underweight. Between-meal snacks and fatty foods were encouraged.
  • Home was thought of as a refuge from the outside world.
  • Children were believed to be innocent rather than inherently sinful.
  • Indulgence was preferred over strict discipline.
  • Children were considered ‘priceless’. They were given allowances, had lavish birthdays, were allowed treats such as candy bars, ice-cream and Eskimo pies.
  • American children were allowed fruit, salads, oysters, johnny cakes, toast swimming in butter, fish, flesh and game at breakfast, jellies and ices at night, tea and coffee. (In England children were eating bread and milk in the nursery.)
  • American children were treated as ‘robust and confident’ whereas British parenting was watchful and anxious.
  • English family stories (especially those for girls) had little appeal for American children and didn’t do well across the Atlantic.
  • Since American children were allowed to eat, American children’s literature from this time isn’t quite so full of food fantasies as it was in England at this time. (More food fantasies appeared later, during WW rationing in the mid 20th century.)

Notes from Peter Sterns via Carolyn Daniel

English Childhood in the 18th and 19th Centuries

  • Children of the rural laboring classes relied for reading material on cheap chapbooks
  • Chapbooks were passed from family to family
  • School library books were all of the “goody goody, Sunday-school prize type”
  • Middle class children were able to choose their own books and had a wide selection of adventure, school, nonsense, fantasy and fairytales available
  • Poor children grew up without access to literature
  • Between the late 1700s through to the beginning of WW2 young children from wealth British families rarely ate with their parents and other adults apart from servants
  • Their diet was generally austere even though they were well-off, at least by today’s standards. It was thought during this period that rich food spoiled the character of children, so they may not have been allowed to eat things such as pork chops. Experts of the time advised that children shouldn’t be eating fat, sugar, wine and spices.
  • So what did they eat? Boiled meat, steamed fish, cabbage, milk-based puddings.  Milk was considered only food for children — adults wouldn’t drink it.
  • Eating between meals was strictly frowned upon.
  • Bread and jam both on the same piece of bread was thought to be very indulgent and unheard of. Such greed was a matter of morality.
  • Middle class children and above spend childhoods almost entirely within the self-contained space of a nursery where they were looked after by a nurse or nanny.
  • Boys were sent to boarding school but girls were generally tutored at home by a governess.
  • The nursery was usually situated at the top of the house or in a far-flung part and was frequently spartan, furnished with items not needed elsewhere.
  • Children saw their parents — generally the mother — for about an hour a day.
  • Children were allowed plenty of exercise.
  • They were accustomed to being seen and not heard.
  • Children were regarded as inherently sinful. They were confined to the nursery until their ‘natural state’ had been knocked out of them. They weren’t allowed to eat with the adults until then.
  • By 1850 it wasn’t just the very wealthy who employed nurses — genteel tradesmen could afford to employ women as nannies and nurses, too.
  • George Bernard Shaw described how, seeing his own mother so seldom, he tended to idolise her when he did see her — similar to the way in which modern children can also idolise a generally absent parent after a separation.


For more see Lark Rise to Candleford, autobiography of Flora Thompson, as well as the academic work of Denis Butts and Carolyn Daniels.

You can read more about these types of families in books such as:

  • Mary Poppins
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Jane Eyre
  • Dickens
  • Seven Little Australians (who had an English father)


Comparative Children’s Literature: The United States of America

Best Loved Books

Features Of American Kidlit

Often, as explained by Griswold: a child is orphaned, makes a journey, is adopted and harassed by adults, and eventually triumphs over them and comes into his or her own.

  • This article from The Washington Post is about how American childhood has changed over the last few hundred years. Changes in childhood affect kidlit, of course.
  • On the whole American kidlit is more down-to-earth because America’s earlier children’s writers rejected fantasy and escapism.
  • When authors do do fantasy it’s often set in the old world (e.g. Madeliene L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander)
  • American stories have tended to portray the family as a mini-nation. This applies to children’s books especially, e.g. Little Lord Fauntleroy, Huck Finn, Wizard of Oz. So many American children’s books can be seen as nationalistic tracts. We glimpse in them ‘America-as-Child’.
  • Puritanical compared to Europe – closer to Russia than to Sweden in this respect. And compared to England, the trend was not so soon relaxed.

Pilgram's Progress

  • “American publishers, Nicoletta Ciccoli laments, “do not like the dark and disturbing. They love the mainstream.” (As a result, her illustrated children’s books for American publishers seem less challenging: employing a light palette and offering only hints of her genius with the weird.)
  • Many mothers stay at home with their children
  • Translates very few foreign books, and many of those fail to catch on
  • European books don’t do well in America
  • Rationalism
  • Everyday situations
  • Comic events
  • Down-to-earth
  • Material things in general
  • Raised on a national myth of a strong and active hero
  • Acquisition of material wealth preferred over spiritual knowledge and maturity
  • The spirituality of European kid-lit is alien in America
  • European kid-lit seems introspective
  • Something has to happen in American kidlit
  • Churchy
  • Against nakedness
  • American classics advocate positive thinking. There is a substitution of psychology for religion. (The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, The Wizard of Oz — believe in yourself! Have confidence!)
  • Although American classics include tricksters, there is a conviction that Adamic innocence alone is redemptive.
  • Optimism, ignorance of evil and naivety is rewarded, and is enough to save a main character. (Dorothy is innocent, Little Lord Fauntleroy is especially optimistic. Pollyanna is the ultimate example.)
  • American childhood classics are about physical health. But there’s also a vision of the world as a sick ward. (Little Women, The Secret Garden).
  • There are lots of orphans in American kidlit. A lot of the classics are based on the Cinderella ur-story.

E. Nesbit’s failure in the United States is not entirely mysterious. We have always preferred how-to-do to let’s-imagine-that. In the last fifty years, considering our power and wealth, we have contributed relatively little in the way of new ideas of any sort. From radar to rocketry, we have had to rely on other societies for theory and invention. Our great contribution has been, characteristically, the assembly line. do not think it is putting the case too strongly to say that much of the poverty of our society’s intellectual life is directly due to the sort of books children are encouraged to read. Practical books with facts in them may be necessary, but they are not everything. They do not serve the imagination in the same way that high invention does when it allows the mind to investigate every possibility, to free itself from the ordinary, to enter a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems to be; properly engaged, the intelligent child begins to question all presuppositions, and thinks on his own. In fact, the moment he says, wouldn’t it be interesting if…? he is on his way and his own imagination has begun to work at a level considerably more interesting than the usual speculation on what it will be like to own a car and make money. As it is, the absence of imagination is cruelly noticeable at every level of the American society.

New York Times, opinion piece by Gore Vidal

A Brief History Of American Kidlit

  • In the early 18th C, besides the Bible and the New England Primer, the staple items of approved reading were Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Watts’s Hymns, and Divine Songs, and Janeway’s Token for Children with American additions. There were many other memoirs of pious children, admonitions from solemn and forbidding divines, and legacies of advice from father to son or mother to daughter.
  • But Defoe and Swift soon crossed the Atlantic. There were also the chapbook versions of such old stories as The Seven Giants of Christendom and Valentine and Orson.
  • The Babes in the Wood and Tom Thumb sold particularly well.
  • Sometimes it was possible to combine dreadful warnings with sensationalism e.g. The Prodigal Daughter, who makes a bargain with the Devil to poison her parents.
  • For most of the 18th C America was still colonial, so ‘American children’s literature’ didn’t exist — the cultural capital was London. That said, there were printers in Philadelphia and Boston. They would often change minor details in British books to Americanize them.
  • For the 100 years following Newbery’s death there were main types: didactic and commercial American books for children. They were written for ‘respectable’ children, for future masters and misses of the middle classes.
  • In the 1850s there was Tom Brown and Eric (boys’ school stories).
  • Miss Charlotte M. Yonge preceded Louisa Alcott’s Little Women by writing domestic stories for girls.
  • In the 1860s: two great fantasies: Alice and Water Babies.
  • The period 1865-1914  was ‘The Era of the Child’. Several intellectual trends contributed to this: Nostalgia (because the second half of the 19th C was dramatically different from the first half — the Civil War changed everything, urbanization), Fascination With The Future (there was the laying of the transatlantic cable, the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad, telephones, electric lights, first flight, and children were symbols of the future), Progress Through Recapitulation (nearly all the big name American writers of this time were often on steam ships, crossing the Atlantic and were early adopters of tech, and this seems contradictory since they were writing about childhood idylls, but adults of this time were able to regress to the psychic age of their children in order to write for them), Changing Attitudes About Childhood (children were less indulged before this era, which became a lot more middle class with free time for the masses), New Interest In Child Raising Practices (parents were careful about not sullying their children’s innocence, the first paediatric clinic was established in NYC, parents started to think about how they were parenting and realized that ‘parents’ were responsible for children’s needs), The Child As Public Figure (before now children were mostly raised in rural areas but now they were the center of American cultural life, vehicles for nostalgia, symbols of the future, put on stage for the first time. No longer seen and not heard.)
  • Escape from slavery is a common theme in historical fiction. (e.g. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn forward). The outstanding novel about slavery is The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox (1973).
  • In the 1870s: Tom Sawyer, Black Beauty. Before Tom Sawyer there were two general kinds of American Children’s Literature: Aesopian tales of Good and Bad children (finally codified in the Sunday school story), and spiritual biographies of woebegone but saintly waifs (a genre that eventually became the stories of the child-victim in sentimental fiction). But Clemens too on the first kind of story, turned it on its head and celebrated the Bad Boy. Tom Sawyer also lampoons the second type of story.
  • Sometimes a superficially didactic aim was used as cover for sheer fun e.g. Vice in its Proper Shape: or, the Wonderful and Melancholy Transformation of several Naughty Masters and Misses into those Contemptible Animals which they most Resemble in Disposition, Printed for the Benefit of all Good Boys and Girls
  • The 1920s was a great decade for American literature, whereas it was going through a down period over in Britain. There were now specialist courses for children’s librarians and the first children’s editor was appointed by Macmillan of New York in 1919. Other American publishers followed.
  • Between the wars the best American fiction tended to be about European settlement of the East Coast, the War of Independence and the drive to the West. The viewpoints were white Anglo-Saxon, since this is who was writing them.
  • Master Simons’s Garden by Cornelia Meigs was an example of this kind of between-war American kidlit, and was influential for what followed.
  • The Little House on the Prairie is fictionalised autobiography — things in the series actually happened and the people were real, but Wilder’s life was significantly harder than that portrayed in the books. The message is that ‘happiness is not related to material possessions’.  The best of the books is thought to be The Long Winter.
  • Caddie Woodlawn (1935) is another book (a Newbery award winner) that looks west.
  • Johnny Tremain (1943) is set in Boston at the start of the Revolutionary War.  Unlike Caddie Woodlawn, this is a true historical novel.
  • Picture books have blossomed since 1945. There have been great technological advancements in printing and growing awareness of the importance of books for young children. Maurice Sendak is regarded by critics as the best of the past 100 years or so.
  • It took some time though for excellent American children’s literature to come out of the more welcoming environment. Some of the early Newbery Medal winners aren’t actually all that great.
  • Even today there is a difference between Europe and America regarding what is good for children to be reading:

British YA author Jean Ure on using ‘four-letter-words’ in her novel One Green Leaf:

I finally made a stand — I gave the good and defensible reasons, heard no more, and thought with smug satisfaction that here was one author who couldn’t be bullied into submission. Poor innocent fool! On receiving my advance copies from the States, what did I find? In the face of my bold authorial intransigence, the whole speech had been wiped out entirely. I could, of course, have got back to the publishers and made tremendous waves … but equally of course I didn’t. I bowed in the end to the inevitable economic pressures.

  • In the middle of last century kid-lit tended toward idyllic or slightly humorous (Vera and Bill Cleaver, Elaine Konigsburg, Beverly Cleary). The 1950s were a peaceful era in children’s books. America had what Ann Durell (a distinguished editor) called “the Indian summer of the Eisenhower years” when “society was dominated by a sort of mid-Atlantic bourgeoisie that felt it had saved the world for democracy and had thus earned the right to perpetuate forever the sociological and cultural values of Edwardian England.” The children’s book world in the US was solidly Anglophile. “It seemed that almost any book published in London would have an American edition sooner or later.” There was an unwritten ban on lying or stealing, unless punished. No drugs, sexual suggestiveness, drinking or smoking.
  • In the 1970s and 80s there was a trend towards problem oriented books (Katherine Paterson, Cynthia Voigt, Betsy Byars). This happened in the shadow of the Cold War, which people were worried that a bomb could decimate the entire world. This had never been a threat before, of course.
  • Alongside the problem oriented stories fantasy has also thrived (Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, Natalie Babbitt, John Bellairs, Jane Yolen, Anne McCauffrey, Robin McKinley, Meredith Ann Pierce etc)
  • The difference between books ‘for girls’ and books ‘for boys’ is clearer than for example in Asian countries, where people like Hayao Miyazaki are confidently making mainstream movies for children starring female protagonists, without expecting that ‘boys won’t be interested in stories about girls’ (but not vice versa). This is surely related to a culture which romanticises masculinityI recently heard about a study showing that in the United States, girls three to six years of age have a much better ability to regulate their emotions and their behaviors than boys of the same age. Interestingly, this gender difference in self-regulation wasn’t found in any of the three Asian cultures included in the study. The lead author’s take-away was that here in the US, we expect girls to be more self-regulated than boys. – Boy Behaviour or Bad Behaviour from Good Men Project
  • The characters in many American children’s novels take for granted that anyone, no matter how humble, can improve his or her lot in life and achieve a dream. That basic, unquestioned assumption defines them as Americans. It is not shared so unquestioningly, however, by the British animals in Wind in the Willows, who tend to be content with the way things are, and who get into trouble when they try to live out their dreams. – The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, by Nodelman and Reimer. (See Downton Abbey for the adult equivalent of this British tendency in fiction, to punish characters who ‘don’t know their place’.)
  • While British kidlit encourages children to grow up, American kidlit holds up the ideals of domestic Utopia. This happened after WW2 after several decades of economic deprivations and war had deprived Americans of the pleasures of domesticity. (This same ideal had significant consequences for feminism, too, with the domestic ideal requiring a housewife, preferably in curlers and an apron.)
  • Even in postwar decades, American kidlit has been exceptionally idyllic. Then writers such as Katherine Paterson and Patricia MacLachlan came along. Their stories departed abruptly from Arcadia.
  • In the 1960s American children’s literature got a big boost by Title 2 (of President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965) which made huge funds available for book purchase in schools.
  • Family life was exemplified in the reassuring pages of Eleanor Estes, Elizabeth Enright, Madeleine L’Engle et al.
  • In 1965 there was a seminal article in Saturday Review on “The All-White World of Children’s Books, so the discussion has been taking place since then (with not all that much progress). There already existed books about black children but they were written by white authors and implied that black children were really white under the skin.
  • The first outstanding black author for children is sometimes thought to be Virginia Hamilton. She was certainly the first “black woman and black writer to have received” the Newbery Medal.
  • Another black writer Mildred D. Taylor also won it a few years later for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
  • Walter Dean Myers sets most of his stories in Harlem.
  • For more on this see the history of School Library Journal, from SLJ themselves
  • Books started to reflect the change in family dynamics, preparing children for the possibility of broken families
  • Adolescence was portrayed (and perhaps experienced) not as not a time of boundless energy for life but a time of negative rejection of adult values. Adults were no longer automatically entitled to respect.
  • Authors were faced with the tough job of writing about an adolescence they hadn’t experienced themselves. There was a big gap between generations.
  • Parents were often useless or vicious, e.g. the novels of Paul Zindel.
  • In the 1970s there was backlash against feminism and anti-racist groups, and a bunch of book banning.
  • There was also a recession in the 1970s which affected the economics of publishing both in American and Britain. Initial print runs were smaller which raised the price of individual units. Libraries did their best to buy new books but didn’t replace as many old ones. High warehousing charges didn’t help, especially backlists — the majority of books which sell slowly but steadily, if they’re allowed to. Traditionally, children’s books were published for the long term, but now, if a book didn’t immediately take off, it would fall out of print. This made it more difficult for writers to establish themselves.
  • The Indian In The Cupboard brought race issues to kidlit
  • The publishing industry since the 1980s has been more welcoming of new writers than Britain has. There is stronger institutional support. The 1980s were good for children’s literature, and children’s book shops were said to be the fastest growing retail sector.
  • But by the 1990s that was no longer the case. The Association of American Publishers reported that sales of juvenile hard covers in 1993 were down by 8%. Paperback sales were up by double that, but lower than in previous years.

Problems With The Redemption Story

The Redemption Story has a structure of its own. Specifically American in origin, the redemption plot is now seen across the globe. This is a story common to fiction and non-fiction alike.

[R]edemption in particular is a popular, and particularly American, narrative. “Evolving from the Puritans to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Oprah Winfrey… Americans have sought to author their lives as redemptive tales of atonement, emancipation, recovery, self-fulfillment, and upward social mobility,” McAdams writes in an overview of life story research. “The stories speak of heroic individual protagonists—the chosen people—whose manifest destiny is to make a positive difference in a dangerous world, even when the world does not wish to be redeemed.”

The Bible might be sold as a short story collection subtitled ‘Stories of Redemption’. Inside we have standout examples such as:

  • The Story of Noah
  • Abraham and Isaac
  • Ruth
  • Potter
  • Lost Sheep
  • The Prodigal Son
  • Saul of Tarsus

Jonah Lehrer (or was it?) writes that the Redemption Story is very powerful in American politics, also:

  • Ben Franklin went from being a fugitive teen in Philadelphia to the founder of a nation
  • President George W. Bush was “born again” after years of drinking and troublemaking
  • John McCain was a prisoner of war

It applies to some of the best-loved American celebrities:

  • Lehrer also mentions Oprah Winfrey, who had a troubled childhood
  • Drew Barrymore was a child star who came through addiction
  • Nicki Minaj grew up in a violent home in Queens

The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.

The opposite of a ‘redemption story’ is known as a ‘contamination story’. Contamination stories end on a tragic note.

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.


Barbara Ehrenreich criticises this mindset throughout her book Smile Or Die.

It can be hard to share a story when it amounts to: “This happened, and it was terrible. The end.” In research McLean did, in which she asked people who’d had near-death experiences to tell their stories to others. “The people who told these unresolved stories had really negative responses,” she says. If there wasn’t some kind of uplifting, redemptive end to the story (beyond just the fact that they survived), “The listeners did not like that.”

Captain Awkward reserves special hatred for the redemption story, because the narrative has a far-reaching impact on real people. In this post, she explains Why We Don’t Diagnose People Through The Internet. At first glance this doesn’t seem to be related to The Redemption Story, but filling in the gaps, armchair diagnoses are terrible for a number of reasons. One of those reasons: It shifts focus from the victim back onto the abuser. If we assign a reason for an abuser’s abuse, that allows us to make another tiny little leap onto a redemption arc for that person.

We are addicted to redemption narratives.

We are especially addicted to stories where mean bad boys are reformed by the love and loyalty of a good lady who sees through their abuse to their true naked vulnerable heart and works really hard singlehandedly to keep the relationship going. Industries upon industries rise and fall on that one. But we like all kinds of redemption narratives and we like them a lot more than we like inconvenient ones where we have to think about victims, harm, or reparations.

— Captain Awkward


Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University, wrote a book called George W. Bush and the redemptive dream: A psychological portrait. New York: Oxford University Press. McAdams specialises in the psychology of redemption. He also wrote The Art and Science of Personality Development, which includes a chapter called “Generative Lives, Redemptive Life Stories”.  

Whether fiction or non-fiction, McAdams explains what a redemption story looks like:

  1. EARLY ADVANTAGE  —  the protagonist becomes aware of their special blessings; they feel marked from the start
  2. SENSITIVITY TO SUFFERING — the protagonist describes how they noticed the unfairness of the world
  3. MORAL STEADFASTNESS — the protagonist lives their life guided by a strong sense of right and wrong
  4. REDEMPTION SEQUENCES — moments in which a significant mistake or hardship – addiction, divorce, unemployment, etc. – becomes a means to absolution and grace, or what McAdams describes as the “deliverance from suffering to an enhanced status or state”
  5. EDUCATION PROVIDED BY THE HARD TIMES — the protagonist commits to “prosocial goals” and tries to “improve the lives of other people”

Here’s a Christian way of putting it. I’ve annotated with common writing terminology:

The Bible portrays the behavior of mankind cyclically. [CIRCULAR PLOT SHAPE] From a high point of alignment with God’s character and will, man’s conduct deteriorates and sin increases. [PSYCHOLOGICAL AND MORAL WEAKNESS] Sin’s natural fruit is confusion, pain and suffering,[MAKE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER SUFFER HARD] and these grow as individuals and societies move farther from their Creator. As sin increases, harm increases. Eventually the pain reaches a point where people yearn for salvation. [BATTLE] God raises up a man or woman, a deliverer, to lead the people back to Him; to help them realign with His will. [SELF REVELATION] Through this deliverer, the Lord brings people back to Him. [NEW EQUILIBRIUM] This is the Cycle of Redemption.

M.D. Harris

Let’s see how the structure of a redemption story lines up with the basic narrative structure suggested by storytelling experts.

  1. WEAKNESS/NEED — in fiction, protagonists need something wrong with them at the beginning. The hero of a redemption story is more like a superhero in that they have special powers which cannot be realised due to external factors. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with them, personally.
  2. DESIRE — the hero in a redemption story starts to desire a different world because they have noticed injustice all around them.
  3. OPPONENT — the opponent is the society
  4. PROBLEM — mistakes and hardships — addiction, divorce, unemployment, etc.
  5. BATTLE — I’m guessing that’s described, too. How hard it was to overcome such hardships.
  6. SELF-REVELATION — corresponds directly to the redemption sequences
  7. NEW EQUILIBRIUM — ‘the protagonist commits to prosocial goals’


One of the main messages to come out of America is: ‘Believe in yourself and you can do anything you set your mind to’. Many American children’s books express that message in the subtext.

Why are such stories so popular? Lehrer speculates that these redemption narratives ‘better prepare us for the “hard work and daunting challenges” of the well-lived life’.

To care for someone, or to agitate for social change, or to try to make a positive difference in the world, is to commit to a long struggle, a marathon in which success is mingled with failure and triumph is mixed up with disappointment. In order to not give up, it helps to have a life story in which pain is merely a precursor to wisdom, and every struggle an opportunity for growth.


The Redemption Story can no longer be described specifically American. Dan Hade goes into the extent to which American stories have spread across the globe. The USA has been exporting its stories for several generations now, and it seems the most popular story worldwide resembles some version of the redemption story.

Harry Potter is a British example. In  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Harry feels unworthy of the House of Gryffindor. By the end of the story, Harry has all the proof he needs that he truly belongs in Gryffindor. Ron and Neville also learn to believe in themselves.

2017 update: Is it any wonder so many Hollywood movies are about terrible men seeking redemption? We’re continuing to see them, by the way. Maybe the post 2017 era will see fewer of them. One of the most egregious examples of 2017 is Godless. See this review for more on that, and save yourself the trouble of suffering through it.


It’s worth pointing out that America has also produced some tentpole anti-redemption stories, probably in reaction to the popularity of its inverse.

  • Deliverance is one example, a film based on a novel by James Dickey.
  • Hud is another, written by Larry McMurtry. McMurtry’s general outlook on life is a pessimistic one — Lonesome Dove (which he wrote later) is often described as a great Western when it is in fact a typical anti-Western.
  • Perhaps the inverse of a redemption story is a revenge story, in which case True Grit is a good example.

Notice that in all four examples above, a main character ends with a missing limb.

The Influence of Edith Nesbit

Even if you’ve never read any of Edith Nesbit’s actual books, you’ve read books in the Nesbit tradition — basically all modern children’s literature. That’s how influential she was.

Edith Nesbit (married name Edith Bland; 15 August 1858 – 4 May 1924) was an English author and poet; she published her books for children under the name of E. Nesbit.


The Railway Children cover E. Nesbit

E. Nesbit belonged firmly to the writers of the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, marked by its stories about children who acted rather than thought. These were resourceful and resilient children, and they were proud of their class. They were patriotic. Children are wiser than adults in many respects. Nesbit was one of the first to create this dynamic (e.g. Story of the Amulet), which would not have been possible without the ‘romantic reevaluation of childhood‘.


Edith grew up with a mother who had been widowed in a part of Surrey which is now Greater London. Accordingly, Edith thinks that bringing children up in London is awful. She much prefers the freedom of the country for children.

At the age of 21 she had a shotgun wedding but her new husband’s business partner made off with all their money. This is why she took up writing and painting greeting cards. Her husband became a writer too, but Edith was the main breadwinner.

She was a bit of a Bohemian Dorothy Parker type. She smoked long before it was acceptable for women to do so. (This gave her bronchial problems and was eventually the death of her.) She bobbed her hair when women were meant to wear it long.

The economic realities of the time: families were often in trouble, as was hers. Nesbit wrote numerous times about families who were struggling with money. The father is ill or redundant or defrauded by a business partner or even in prison. The mother might be ill, or caring for a sick relative. The children often have to go and stay with unsympathetic strangers in horrible lodgings. Even when Edith keeps her fictional families together, it’s usually in slightly impoverished surroundings.


An important thing to know about E. Nesbit is that she co-founded the Fabian Society, which is now affiliated with The British Labour Party. So, E. Nesbit was very socialist. This of course comes across in her work. Her books recommend socialist solutions to problems. In the typical Victorian fairy tale class lines are sharply drawn. Aristocratic children are thought to be morally and intellectually and generally superior to everyone else. Most of Nesbit’s characters are middle class but every now and then she wrote a character like Mabel (The Enchanted Castle) from a lower economic rung. Dickie from Harding’s Luck is basically uneducated but is shown to be very smart, imaginative and courageous.  The aristocratic child is mean, cowardly and pretty stupid. This is a common trope today — smart underdogs versus stupid rich kids, but Edith Nesbit started it.

Another common trope of the Victorian era: A rich child befriends a poor one and improves them. In The Mixed Mine Edith inverted it — the poor child improves the life of the rich one.


Many of her books suffer from having been written in serial stories. With Five Children And It, for example, the book is divided into the granting of wishes. Each chapter had to have a self-contained plot and climax, which is not ideal.

Only Children

Nesbit didn’t really ‘get’ only children. She herself had a sister, a half sister and 3 brothers. The closest she got to an only child in fiction was Mabel of The Enchanted Castle.

enchanted-castle nesbit

Nesbit and her husband had an open marriage, though it was mostly the husband who slept with other people. Edith ended up taking in two of his illegitimate children and raising them alongside her own three. (Busy as she must have been, she formed a few romantic attachments of her own, the most famous with George Bernard Shaw. But that was just close friendship.)


Magic is used both as a comic device as well as a serious metaphor for the power of the imagination.

She loved to write about saurian monsters (monsters that look like big lizards). She usually called them megatheriums.


Nesbit’s voice seems unremarkable to contemporary readers because we see it everywhere. But at the time it was highly unusual. Nesbit spoke to children as if she were one of them, when everyone else was form, leisurely and didactic. Nesbit’s voice is inform, direct and that of a sensible child coolly commenting on the world. She adopts the child’s point of view whole-heartedly.

E. Nesbit introduced the technique of Paralepsis as Secondary Narrative into children’s literature.


Nesbit wrote some magical stories and some realistic ones. In her non-magical stories — The Bastable series — she removes one parent (prison/death/faraway country) and interposes a surrogate (housekeeper/Great Southern Railway Company) between the children and the remaining parent. This surrogate can now be upset without emotional repercussions. The Bastable series has influenced all those books that have come since, in which children have autonomous adventures: e.g. Swallows and Amazons, and the Melendy series: The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two. by Elizabeth Enright.

Melendy series Elizabeth Enright


Nesbit has been hugely influential on authors from the Second Golden Age of children’s literature:

E Nesbit has perhaps been strongest of all. Her stories, whether magical or not, are firmly rooted in the real world and have been hugely influential on books of the Second Golden Age which people of my own generation loved – Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Diana Wynne-Jones’s Chrestomanci books, Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe quartet, Peter Dickinson’s Changes trilogy, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, Joan Aiken’s Wolves of WIllighby Chase sequence and Eva Ibbotson’s hilarious witches and ghosts. Her dauntless brothers and sisters were echoed by Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild and, more recently, a constellation of contemporary authors like Hilary McKay, Anne Fine, Fiona Dunbar, Cathy Cassidy, Anthony McGowan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Francesca Simon. Above all, she is acknowledged as the single greatest influence on Rowling, presumably because her conception of how the logical consequences of mixing the magical with the mundane is so comical. All have drawn from her faultless ear for family drama, her abundant sense of humour and her social conscience.

Amanda Craig

The works of Edith Nesbit aren’t perfect as works of art. The work Nesbit produced between the age of 20 and 40 is conventional and sentimental (by modern tastes). This all changed with The Story of the Treasure Seekers, about six London children who try to restore the family fortunes. In her character Oswald Bastable, it seems Edith was finally able to unleash the childhood version of herself.

Nesbit had an influence on another well-known children’s writer, C.S. Lewis:

The author’s voice in the Narnia’s books kindly explained things to the child reading…It was a gorgeously certain voice, which in itself lent a wonderful solidity to Narnia’s stars and sausages, so that they blazed in their spheres and swelled in their skins, but it never spoke from a position of adult detachment…He used the trick of uncondescending explanation, borrowed from E. Nesbit, only to involve you in perceptions you couldn’t have had on your own. Which made it doubly frustrating when the book was over, and you couldn’t invent any more of what you had taken part in.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

J.K. Rowling counts the books of E. Nesbit of some of her own childhood favourites:

I love E Nesbit—I think she is great and I identify with the way that she writes. Her children are very real children and she was quite a groundbreaker in her day.

Echoed here by Amanda Craig:

E Nesbit has perhaps given us the strongest DNA of all. Her stories, whether magical or not, are firmly rooted in the real world and have been hugely influential on books of the Second Golden Age – Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books, Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe series, Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence and Eva Ibbotson’s hilarious witches and ghosts. Her quarrelsome, highly believable brothers and sisters were echoed by Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild, Roald Dahl and, more recently, a constellation of contemporary authors like Hilary McKay, Anne Fine, Cathy Cassidy, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Francesca Simon. Above all, she is acknowledged as the single greatest influence on JK Rowling, presumably because her conception of mixing the magical with the mundane is sharply satirical. The most recent winner of the Costa Prize for Children’s fiction, Kate Saunders, updated one of Nesbit’s most famous books with Five Children on the Western Front – having cleverly worked out that, in just a few years, her famous Edwardian family would have been embroiled in the First World War.

And so does Philip Pullman:

The books I read as a child shaped my deepest beliefs. When I was at university, my friends and I were thrilled to discover that our childhood favourites seemed even more powerful than we remembered. This was true of classic authors such as George MacDonald, Rudyard Kipling, E Nesbit and Tove Jansson; or 1960s writers like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Peter Dickinson and Ursula Le Guin.


Margaret Blount in Animal Land writes that a little known (now) but influential story about mice was hugely influential (and probably forms the template of Peter Rabbit). See my post  Rodents In Children’s Literature for more about that.

However, it wasn’t until Nesbit came along that readers saw ‘real human souls in human bodies. Until that point, stories about animals had been about humans whose appearance has been changed by magic. Prevailing religious views would not have made such stories possible until Nesbit’s generation of writers came along.

Edith Nesbit’s The Cathood of Maurice was groundbreaking in this regard. It is the first short story in a collection of twelve, published in the anthology called The Magic World.

The Magic World

Another two stories of this tradition were The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White and Jennie by Paul Gallico.


In The Story Of The Amulet, Nesbit basically invented a new subgenre of the time travel story. That way of thinking about time travel can be seen in stories from Sherman and Peabody to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. For more on that, listen to the Long Now: Seminars About Long-term thinking delivered 5 June 2017 by James Gleick.

Published in 1906, the very concept of time travel was very new at that time. In The Time Machine, H.G. Wells has to go to great lengths to explain the fourth dimension to the friends who have gathered in his drawing room. The modern reader may wonder why. That’s because the term ‘time travel’ was not familiar to anyone, and people learned in school that there were three dimensions. Einstein came along quite soon after and proved that time really is the fourth dimension. (In case you’re wondering, H.G. Wells didn’t have any special insight into astrophysics — the fact that he’d written fiction about what later turned out to be dead accurate is more of a commentary on ‘ideas that were in the air’ around the turn of the century.)

In any case, Nesbit had her finger on the pulse. Without the Internet, how did Edith Nesbit have access to these ideas? There can only be one answer: She was immersed in an interesting subculture of people and was having in depth conversations. Nesbit was a member of this intriguing organisation. She was no doubt also well-read. She had a special interest in ancient civilisations in general and in ancient Egypt in particular.

C.S. Lewis seemed to borrow the time travel ideas of Nesbit and used them in  The Horse and His Boy (1954) and The Magician’s Nephew (1955). C.S. Lewis knew Nesbit’s work well and happily borrowed from her tone, her devices, and her effects.

As I read E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, a tale of children’s magical adventures, a feeling of familiarity came over me. This 1906 book seemed to anticipate C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, published almost exactly half a century later (1955) but, unlike the rest of the Narnia series, set back in the era when Nesbit herself was writing. It’s well known that Nesbit influenced Lewis’s Narnia series – he acknowledged it himself. His template – a group of sibling children having magical adventures – was inspired by Nesbit’s books, and scholars have identified various specific instances in the Narnia books that Lewis adapted from different Nesbit stories.

The Toronto Review Of Books

If you’re a socialist rather than a Christian and you enjoy the Narnia stories you might consider going back to read Nesbit.


E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome wrote for both boys and girls in an era when books were gender bifurcated — domestic stories for girls; adventure stories for boys. They did this by including both boys and girls going off on adventures. There were no adventure stories for girls starring only girls. In Blyton and Ransome’s books, the males are generally more active, making the plans and decisions.

Nesbit was an early feminist (though didn’t necessarily use that term). At the time her girls were highly subversive. They are brave and adventurous, just like their brothers. They never sit round waiting for someone to rescue them.

“Father, darling, couldn’t we tie up one of the silly little princes for the dragon…? I fence much better than any of the princes we know.”

— a girl’s dialogue from The Last Of The Dragons, more reminiscent of Pixar’s Brave than of anything else from that era.

As a child Nesbit would have been described as a ‘tomboy’. She declared that she never loved a doll in her life, she loved playing pirates with her big brothers during the holidays and was generally rebellious, both at school and at home.

Five Children and It

Nesbit’s Phoenix is referred to as “It”, and is not described in terms of gender. The female children, Anthea and Jane, enjoy a range of activities, and do not appear to be limited by societal restrictions related to gender. Prior to these stories girls were treated to a whole lot of domestic dramas, whose main purpose was to persuade girls that being at home was fulfilling and the place to be.