The Railway Children

by Edith Nesbit

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Critical Context

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Edith Nesbit was recognized as an excellent writer for children during her lifetime and remains an important figure in children’s literature. While her adult characters are generally offstage or not well developed, her children are realistic and believable. They argue with one another, make mistakes, and struggle to be good without being priggish or too virtuous; Nesbit’s moral lessons are always accompanied by humor.

The Railway Children is typical of her work in its episodic structure, occasional sibling rivalry, and happy ending. Many of her other books, however, are more fantastical than The Railway Children. In Five Children and It (1902) and its sequels, The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and The Secret of the Amulet (1906), the children’s adventures occur through magic, such as the wishes that almost never turn out the way the children want them to in Five Children and It. Magic provides an opportunity for the children to learn about the world and themselves. Nesbit also uses it occasionally to make points about the English social order; in The Secret of the Amulet, the Queen of Babylon declares that her slaves are better off than the English working class. Nesbit’s work has endured not only because of its humor and realistic representations of children but also because of its way of engaging the reader with complex questions about human relationships and responsibilities.

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