There are some children’s books that are so important that they become more than just literature – they enter deeply into our collective imagination in a way few adult books can. The Secret Life of Children’s Books tells the story of two of these masterpieces, revealing just why they continue to resonate so powerfully.
Five Children and It
Edith Nesbit is probably best known for The Railway Children but her earlier book Five Children and It was even more influential – its blend of magic and realism paving the way for the Narnia stories and Harry Potter. In this film, actress and Nesbit fan Samantha Bond delves into the origins and legacy of the book that can be arguably said to have kick-started modern children’s fiction. Samantha discovers how the book was born out of Edith’s rootless childhood and the struggle to bring up her own family. She reveals the bohemian ménage-a-trois behind the book’s image of a happy family. And she finds out about the terrible tragedy that coloured Edith’s imagination and which gave birth to a new kind of children’s fiction.
Written in 1862 by the Reverend Charles Kingsley, The Water-Babies tells the story of a young chimney sweep called Tom. Transformed into an aquatic creature he finds redemption amongst the pulsing life of the open ocean. In this film Church of England vicar and former pop star, The Revd. Richard Coles, dives beneath the surface of a children’s classic to reveal the revolutionary science behind The Water-Babies. He finds out how the book was born out of a sense of outrage at the suffering of young sweeps and how its popular success led to a change in the law. He grapples with the dark side of The Water-Babies – exploring how the book’s “muscular Christianity” was tainted by racial prejudice. And he discovers how Kingsley’s classic contained a sense of feminine spirituality seemingly at odds with whiskery Victorian stereotypes
- Learn more about magical creatures in children's literature.
- Explore more content on Victorian children's literature, poetry and the wonders of the literary world in quirky animations.
- Try out some free courses on writing fiction, writing what you know and poetry.
- Take it further by studying at The Open University.
- Look at previous series of The Secret Life of Books we have worked on
- Look at episodes in this series.
The first episode of The Secret Life of Children's Books will be broadcast on BBC Four on Monday 4th July 2016 at 8.30pm, the second episode airs on Monday 11th July at 10pm. Full broadcast details, and watch again links, can be found on bbc.co.uk.