Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders… Moontrug had seen the glowing reviews in newspapers and she’d heard the gushing comments on Twitter but when this book won the Costa Children’s Book Award, she thought *Right, that’s it. Stop reading whatever you’re reading and read this book NOW.*
It was a day full of adventure. The children were together for the last time. The Great War began in earnest, and Cyril was off to fight. And for the first time in ten years, the magical Psammead appeared at the bottom of the garden.
Moontrug loved E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It as a child – both the book and then the BBC TV adaption. In fact it was such a hit in the family that the youngest of Moontrug’s siblings threw an almighty tantrum when Daddy Moontrug recorded the weather over episode one of the Psammead. Saunders effortlessly continues the original story with hers – a tale of a grumpy sand fairy trying to find its way home, and of five children dealing with the consequences of the war.
The Psammead, ‘a compact furry ball of deep sulking’, is brilliantly characterised and Saunders makes his journey towards self-awareness and empathy both heart-breaking and terribly funny. The children initially regard the Psammead as a treasured (if rather bad-tempered) sand fairy but as the book progresses we learn about the awful crimes he committed in his time. With the children’s help, he learns to repent but Saunders doesn’t labour this point and her use of well-timed humour makes the message even more poignant: ‘Committing more murders,’ the Lamb suggested. ‘Like a furry Jack the Ripper.’
Edie, the youngest of the children, is adorable – and perhaps the character who feels the Psammead’s magic most keenly. She loves the sand fairy despite his faults (‘Edie thought the Psammead’s yawns, when his mouth went from horizontal to vertical, awfully sweet’) and it is she who believes he will be redeemed. She refuses to think less of the Psammead, whatever he has done: ‘I’ll never think less of you’ and when the Psammead finally prepares to leave, Edie’s words will break a little piece of your heart off: ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help crying… It’s just that I love you so much!’ The book deals with two worlds – the childlike one (where sand fairies are kept hidden in the attic and children grow up to be famous explorers and have waterfalls named after them) and the adult world (where countries are torn apart in war and families are broken apart at the arrival of telegrams). The children are fabulously characterised, the story-telling voice is just as enthralling as E.Nesbit’s and the truths at the heart of the story are deeply moving. This is a classic and by page 9, you will have a tear in your eye. Highly recommended.