One Book after Another: Early Children’s Fantasy

This post is less about one single author or book than about a whole group: THE group, which includes those authors who set the standards for writing a good children’s fantasy story. When I daydream about the books that I’d love to see my own books shelved alongside, I end up thinking about a lot of children’s novels that were written prior to the 1920s. Authors like L. Frank Baum, Edith Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, and George MacDonald wrote wonderful children’s stories filled with places and characters that have influenced every generation of children’s authors since.


I’ve noticed that there is a certain tone and voice that a lot of Victorian and Edwardian children’s writers use. I read somewhere in an article about E. Nesbit that the attitude towards children changed during their era from writing about children as they “should be” (as in the trite morality stories of the 1800s) to writing about children “as they really were.” I think this captures the tone I was picking up on; these authors are talking to their young readers, not talking at them.

“So I will only tell you the really astonishing things that happened, and you may leave the book about quite safely, for no aunts and uncles either are likely to write ‘How true!’ on the edge of the story. Grown-up people find it very difficult to believe really wonderful things, unless they have what they call proof. But children will believe almost anything, and grown-ups know this. “- E. Nesbit, Five Children and It 

Not only do these books present magical worlds that exist only for their children readers (adults could rarely see any of the fantastical beasts or appreciate the magic), but the authors seem to insist that there is a chasm between adults and children, and as long as the reader remained a child the fantastic was theirs to embrace. This brings a special magic to these stories, and it’s an element that I’ve tried to harness in my own writing. I wanted to create characters that children could claim as their own and relate to, in ways that were communicated on their level. This doesn’t mean dumbed-down, but sharp-witted and speaking with creative abandon. Nothing is too outlandish for them to say; and they’re often very intelligent, even despite being childlike.

The Psammead

One of my favorite pieces of dialogue comes from E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, a wonderful story about five siblings who uncover a Psammead, or sand fairy, as they are digging on the beach. The sand fairy is very ancient and cranky but he has the ability to grant daily wishes, and after a little pestering the children persuade him to grant their desires. The wishes only last until the evening, and if they wish for any sort of object, it will either vanish or turn to stone at the end of the day. Their wishes range from having their baby brother grow up into a man, to wanting an army to siege their own personal castle, to some pretty hilarious, accidental wishes.

My favorite passage is their initial introduction to the Psammead;

The children stood round the hole in a ring, looking at the creature they had found. It was worth looking at. Its eyes were on long horns like a snail’s eyes, and it could move them in and out like telescopes; it had ears like a bat’s ears, and its tubby body was shaped like a spider’s and covered with thick soft fur; its legs and arms were furry too, and it had hands and feet like a monkey’s.

‘What on earth is it?’ Jane said. ‘Shall we take it home?’

The thing turned its long eyes to look at her, and said: ‘Does she always talk nonsense, or is it only the rubbish on her head that makes her silly?’

It looked scornfully at Jane’s hat as it spoke.

‘She doesn’t mean to be silly,’ Anthea said gently; we none of us do, whatever you may think! Don’t be frightened; we don’t want to hurt you, you know.’

‘Hurt ME!’ it said. ‘ME frightened? Upon my word! Why, you talk as if I were nobody in particular.’ All its fur stood out like a cat’s when it is going to fight.

‘Well,’ said Anthea, still kindly, ‘perhaps if we knew who you are in particular we could think of something to say that wouldn’t make you cross. Everything we’ve said so far seems to have. Who are you? And don’t get angry! Because really we don’t know.’

‘You don’t know?’ it said. ‘Well, I knew the world had changed – but – well, really – do you mean to tell me seriously you don’t know a Psammead when you see one?’

‘A Sammyadd? That’s Greek to me.’

‘So it is to everyone,’ said the creature sharply. ‘Well, in plain English, then, a SAND-FAIRY. Don’t you know a Sand-fairy when you see one?’

It looked so grieved and hurt that Jane hastened to say, ‘Of course I see you are, now. It’s quite plain now one comes to look at you.’

‘You came to look at me, several sentences ago,’ it said crossly, beginning to curl up again in the sand.

‘Oh – don’t go away again! Do talk some more,’ Robert cried. ‘I didn’t know you were a Sand-fairy, but I knew directly I saw you that you were much the wonderfullest thing I’d ever seen.’

The Sand-fairy seemed a shade less disagreeable after this.

I have a soft spot for grouchy characters, so the Psammead charmed me immediately. In the story, the Psammead is the more “adult” character in how he interacts with the children; he always acts as though he doesn’t have time for them or is being pestered, but he also has a bit of a softer side that makes him endearing. He has a sense of self-importance, seeing himself as someone with experience – of course, the Psammead is never surprised by the negative outcomes of the children’s wishes, and he allows them to deal with the consequences and sometimes learn from them.

Other fantasy books that I’d recommend from this same era – aside from the more popular Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass and the Oz series – include The Water-Babies and The Princess and the Goblin.

One Book After Another: David and the Phoenix

The book David and the Phoenix by Edward Ormondroyd was first published in 1957 (I have an edition from 1958). It was sort of an accidental thrift store find for me, because I always scour the kids’ book section for obscure children’s fantasy books that I’ve never heard of before. It was the illustrated dust jacket, which features the main character, that attracted me to it: David standing on the beach with the Phoenix and a gentle-faced sea-monster asleep in the sand. I was instantly convinced that this tattered copy was worth the read. I later created a sculpture based on the cover illustration, but for some reason I can only find a couple work-in-progress shots:


Basically, the general premise of the story is that a young boy moves with his family to a new house and is instantly drawn to the mountain that looms just beyond the back fence. His longing for exploring the mountain is what leads him to encounter “the one and only, the Unique, Phoenix.” Rather than being a ferocious, mythological bird creature, the Phoenix is a highly educated and charmingly arrogant character. After being convinced to stay, and not fly away to South America in order to avoid the scientist that has been hot on his heels, the Phoenix becomes David’s friend and mentor. Together they plot how to turn the tables on the persistent scientist – who doesn’t just want to study the Phoenix but has plans to shoot him! It’s not until they purchase the most frightening wail from a former banshee (who turned to being a witch, because running a witch apothecary is where the money is at) that they succeed at derailing the scientist’s plans. If your weakness is unlikely friendships with lovable monsters, then this book’s beautiful ending might make you sniffle.


Aside from the charming plot and illustrations, it was the conversations between the Phoenix and David that lent inspiration to my own writing. Here is where Ormondroyd’s writing truly shines. The Phoenix is an extremely witty character and is always imparting his wisdom on the impressionable young David in something close to a proper English accent. (When I read his lines, I always imagine a voice similar to Roddy McDowell’s). What the Phoenix feels is important and common knowledge always borders on the fantastic and amusing. While they are wildly different, the two characters, boy and bird, find kinship in their love for adventure and strawberry ice cream.

Go read it online through Project Gutenberg. Or, if you get lucky, you can purchase a copy at your local bookstore!

I’ll leave you with a favorite passage from the book. The Phoenix knows a thing or two about the other fantasy creatures:

“Gryffins,” explained the Phoenix, “are the small, reddish, friendly ones. Gryffons are the quick-tempered proud ones. Gryffens—ah, well, the most anyone can say for them is that they are harmless. They are very stupid.”

“I see,” said David doubtfully. “What do they look like?”

“Each looks like the others, my boy, except that some are bigger and some are smaller. But to continue: Sea Monsters, Leprechauns, Rocs, Gnomes, Elves, Basilisks, Nymphs—ah—and many others. All are of the Better Sort, since, as I have many times truly observed, one is known by the company one keeps. And your education will cost you nothing. Of course it would be agreeable if you could supply me with cookies from time to time.”

“As many as you want, Phoenix. Will we go to Africa?”

“Naturally, my boy. Your education will include—”

“And Egypt? And China? And Arabia?”

“Yes. Your education will—”

“Oh, Phoenix, Phoenix!” David jumped up and began to caper, while the Phoenix beamed. But suddenly he stopped.

“How are we going to travel, Phoenix?”

“I have wings, my boy.”