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The Secret Life of Children's Books

This two part OU/BBC co-production looks at the secret lives of 'The Five Children and It' by E. Nesbitt and 'The Water Babies' by Charles Kingsley. 

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Richard Cole holding 'Act' and 'The Water Babies' Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC 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.

The Water-Babies

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

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


Five Children and It

Samantha Bond behind Halstead Hall. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The BBC Edith Nesbit has been described as “the first modern writer for children” - her books depicting recognisable children with complex inner lives.  But with Five Children and It published in 1902 she added something new to her mix of realism and adventure - magic.

The “It” of the title is described as a “sand fairy”. But this is no gossamer-winged nymph. Cranky, afflicted by wind, and with swivelling eyes on stalks, he’s a very modern and mischievous take on the fairy tradition.

Like her “sand fairy” Nesbit was herself a deeply unconventional character. Poet, novelist and political activist, she counted George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells as intimates. Her family life was also unusual. Although the young characters in the book are modelled on her own children there’s no hint of the underlying tensions that ran through Nesbit’s household.  Nesbit’s husband, Hubert Bland, fathered a son and daughter with her best friend, Alice Hoatson. Nesbit adopted the children and Alice was invited to move in as housekeeper and secretary. 

The happily bickering family of Five Children and It also disguises tremendous guilt and self-reproach. Shortly before writing the book Nesbit’s son Fabian (Robert in the book) died after never waking up from the anaesthetic he had been given for a routine operation.  Nesbit had forgotten to remind her son not to eat before the tonsillectomy, and forever afterwards blamed herself for his death.  Arguably it was Fabian’s death which propelled Nesbit into a world of magic and wishfulness.

Actress Samantha Bond remembers her mother reading Five Children and It to her as a child - and she read it to her own children in turn.  It’s Samantha’s favourite book by an author whose rule-breaking life and writing continue to fascinate her. 

Episodes in this series

Episode Description
Five Children and It Samantha Bond looks at the secret life of 'The Five Children and It'. Read more
The Water Babies In second episode of the series, Richard Coles delves into the secret life of 'The Water Babies'. Read more


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