#CKG16 - Five Children on the Western Front

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This is an epic, heart-wrenching follow-on from E. Nesbit's Five Children and It stories. The five children have grown up and World War I has begun in earnest. Cyril is off to fight, Anthea is at art college, Robert is a Cambridge scholar and Jane is at high school. The Lamb is the grown up age of 11, and he has a little sister, Edith, in tow. The sand fairy has become a creature of stories ...until, for the first time in 10 years, he suddenly reappears. The siblings are pleased to have something to take their minds off the war, but this time the Psammead is here for a reason, and his magic might have a more serious purpose. Before this last adventure ends, all will be changed, and the two younger children will have seen the Great War from every possible viewpoint - factory-workers, soldiers, nurses and ambulance drivers, and the people left at home, and the war's impact will be felt right at the heart of their family.
(synopsis from Waterstones.com)

Firstly I have to admit that I haven't read E. Nesbit's Five Children and It stories. I was however a HUGE fan of both BBC TV series that were first shown in the early 90s when I was little. Five Children on the Western Front has been shortlisted for numerous awards since its publication and won 2014s Costa children's book award. My best friend bought be the beautiful hardback edition for Christmas last year and, as always happens, it has sat languishing on my shelves ever since. When I saw that it was on the list of nominations for 2016s CILIP Carnegie Medal I saw my chance to finally get around to reading it. 

So, warmed with nostalgic feelings from my childhood, that is what I did. 

As it states in the Waterstones synopsis above Five Children on the Western Front is set in England during World War One. Having commemorated the wars centenary last year at the school where I work, I learnt a lot about World War One and I was interested to see how Saunders had weaved such a horrific event into a children's book. 

She did poignantly. 

What I loved about Five Children on the Western Front is that it did not shy away from the horrors of World War One but because it is a story mainly based around Lamb and Edie's perspective it still retained an innocence that made it a heart warming, as well as a heart wrenching read. It was a stroke of brilliance to use the letters and the wishes to show us how life was for the people who were part of the war. Through this narrative devices the reader is shown glimpses of what the war was like for soldiers fighting on the front, nurses tending the injured and those at home who longed for news of their loved ones. That the children were aware of the danger Cyril, Robert and Ernie were in made the story all the more touching as they had to try and carry on with life as normal whilst they were off risking their lives. The way Saunders portrayed how the adults in the story reacted to the war through the eyes of the children was also a good narrative decision as it allows an older reader to sit back and acknowledge just how much children are aware of what goes on around them. 

The five children were characterised very distinctly, a reflection of the story being aimed at children. Each had their own personality and none of them ever acted out of character. Saunders did very well to create an immediate closeness within their little group which amplified the emotional significance of later events in the story. I also enjoyed the fact that the girls were very sure of themselves. Unfortunately female characters, especially children, can still be portrayed as rather weak so it was refreshing to have Jane and Anthea turn into ambitious, headstrong young women. The interaction between the children in the book will remind any reader of what it is like to be young and have such a close bond with other children; whether that be siblings, other relatives or friends. They have their little inside jokes and also their little arguments all of which create an authenticity in their relationships that give the events of the story an extra layer. 

The Sand Fairy and his reappearance bought a magic touch to the narrative that wasn't too overplayed,although I I do think that Ernie's reaction to seeing the Sand Fairy for the first time was a little understated. The Sand Fairy, whilst bringing magic to the story, also bought something more serious in Saunders' continuation of Nesbit's story. In Five Children on the Western Front the Sand Fairy has lost his ability to grant wishes; his magic has disappeared. What follows his reappearance is something of a moral tale about repentance and the Sand Fairy's journey into his past links to the events happening in the present. Having only seen the TV series I do not know if Saunders' characterisation of the Sand Fairy aligns itself with Nesbits but for me his grumblings and affinity to praise was exactly how I remember him from the watching him as a young girl. He serves as a welcome distraction from the war but also facilitates their curiosity, allowing them to see how Cyril is doing and giving them an insight into the war they would not have had otherwise.

What really got me with Five Children on the Western Front was how Saunders plays on our emotions. Reading it as an adult who knows a lot about the impact World War One had on every aspect of life during the four years it was being fought added an extra weight to the story. Presenting us with a fantastical children's story set to a back drop of such a horrific event is heart wrenching. Although the children are not portrayed as naive to what is going on around them, there is still a sense of innocence that surrounds them and seeing how they deal with two very difficult situations when the war impacts their family directly was enough to bring a tear to my eye. Saunders makes the reader realise that the war impacted everyone and that there really was no escape from the pain it caused. 

It is the ending that really got me. The Sand Fairy has finally repented for all that he did in his past and he provides one last chance of communication for the children as they say goodbye to a loved one. I found that scene particularly poignant as not only did it mark the end of the children's adventures with the Sand Fairy but it also seemed to mark the start of a change for the children and the whole country who were now going to have to deal with the aftermath of the war. 

Five Children on the Western Front is a touching, magical and heart wrenching story and I urge anyone to give it a read.