I used to be skeptical of authors commissioned to continue a beloved series. Surely, the new sequel couldn’t be as good as the original. Then I read Jacqueline Kelly’s Return to the Willows and was thoroughly charmed. So I had high hopes for Kate Saunders’ Five Children on the Western Front, and I’m pleased to say it exceeded all my expectations. Saunders’ reboot has all the humor and heart of E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, but it goes deeper, and feels more grown-up while remaining quintessentially middle-grade. Bonus: it lacks the casual racism of Nesbit’s book.
As the title suggests, Western Front takes place during World War I. The Pemberton kids are all grown up now, with Cyril off to war, Anthea a volunteer nurse, Robert in college but expecting to join the army at any point, and Jane itching to become a doctor. Even the Lamb is 11, too old to spend much time with the Psammead when the sand fairy mysteriously returns. Luckily, Saunders has introduced Edith (Edie), a younger sibling not found in Nesbit’s books, and she soon becomes the Psammead’s best friend.
The Psammead gives them all boost in morale. For the older kids, he’s a reminder of a happier time before the war. And Edie and the Lamb are ecstatic to meet the sand fairy of legend. But the Psammead’s return isn’t all that joyful: he’s lost most of his magic, and can only regain it by repenting for his past deeds. That past, as the children learn, involves a lot of killing and war, in an eerie echo of the current war. So while the older kids go off to the battlefield, the younger siblings try to piece together what the sand fairy remembers about his days as a desert god. In doing so, the Psammead’s magic gives them glimpses of Cyril’s life in the trenches and Anthea’s work as a nurse. These scenes are vivid and accurate, but never graphic.
The original Five Children and It operated in a bubble, where the kids were free to have their adventures without adult supervision or much context about the wider world. Saunders’ book works on multiple levels, and is much richer because of it. We still get adventures, thanks to the Psammead’s unpredictable magic. Through Edie and the Lamb, we get a feel for the war at home, with food shortages, black armbands and grim news from the front. I also loved how Saunders doesn’t shy away from the social context: when Anthea falls for a boy from an impoverished background, the British class system rears its ugly head. Other barriers emerge when Jane dreams of going to medical school–unheard of for a girl at that time. Mrs. Pemberton becomes the epitome of tradition, resisting all social change. But Saunders never makes her the villain, and you can sympathize with her bewilderment as the war turns her life inside-out. That’s the magic of this book: watching how one beloved family gets torn apart while clinging together brought me closer to the reality of WWI. I can’t think of a better middle-grade book in this setting.
Minor spoiler: you will need tissues. Just consider the book’s dedication:
To all the boys and girls