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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

From her teens on, Nesbit was a published author of poems, short stories, novels, articles, and children’s stories, but not until she was nearly forty did she begin to write the humorous and sparkling children’s novels for which she is best remembered. Some of those, such as the Psammead Trilogy, ...

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From her teens on, Nesbit was a published author of poems, short stories, novels, articles, and children’s stories, but not until she was nearly forty did she begin to write the humorous and sparkling children’s novels for which she is best remembered. Some of those, such as the Psammead Trilogy, The House of Arden (1908), and The Enchanted Castle (1907), incorporate fantasy; others, for example, The Treasure Seekers (1899), The Wouldbegoods (1901), and The Railway Children (1905), do not. In both types of story, Nesbit was among the first to depict children realistically.

Similar to the boys in Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky and Co. (1899; collects eight stories published 1897-1899), the children in her books are neither unbelievably good nor unbelievably bad, as so many fictional children were in her day. They bicker and make up, and they are frightened and brave by turns. Unlike Kipling, Nesbit depicts both boys and girls and has neither group completely conform to the stereotypes then current. The boys, though brave, on occasion cry. The girls, though usually gentler, hurl stones at a castle-besieging army and take charge of dangerous situations.

The Psammead Trilogy, standing with The Treasure Seekers at the beginning of a burst of creative activity, uses many themes to which Nesbit returned in later books. First and foremost, the trilogy deals with the subject of wish fulfillment, continually stressing the adage, “Watch out what you wish for; you might get it.” The children’s wishes, except for those few in which they wish good for others, do not turn out as expected. They wish for gold, for example, and get ancient money they cannot spend. Furthermore, they are suspected of stealing it. Annoyed with taking care of their baby brother, they wish others would want to take him off their hands, then discover how much they love him and want him when every passing stranger tries to take him away.

Magical time travel is another theme to which Nesbit returned often. As her text acknowledges, it was suggested to her by H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), but she was probably the first to incorporate time travel into a children’s story. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) also influenced the trilogy. In The Story of the Amulet, the children travel to the future and see a Wellsian utopia from a child’s point of view; they notice child-safe playrooms and desirable schools.

A committed socialist, Nesbit occasionally indulges in social criticism. The queen of Babylon comments that London’s slaves, as she calls the working people, do not look well treated, and the children find that they cannot explain why having the vote should make them contented. In another adventure, the children can rescue an orphaned girl from the workhouse only by finding her a home in the past; children in their present are not properly valued by society.

Nesbit’s influence was felt by many subsequent writers for children. C. S. Lewis admired the Psammead Trilogy and drew on his memories of it in creating the Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956). Edward Eager acknowledged her influence on his work in Half Magic (1954). Her keen eye for what children feel, say, and do, and her serious exploration of the gifts and the dangers of imaginative play as a tool for both exploring and escaping reality, make her one of the shapers of early twentieth century children’s fiction.

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