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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


The Water Babies

Richard Coles in the tank room with jarred animals. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The BBC Published in 1863 Rev. Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies was an instant hit and remained a mainstay of British children's literature well into the 20th century.

The story of Tom, a young chimney sweep, who is transformed into a "water-baby" after drowning in a river, seems, on the surface, a straightforward piece of Victorian moralising. But plunge below the surface and the book yields unexpected depths…

The book was intended in part as a tract against child labour and especially against the brutal practise of sending little boys – some as young as six- up chimneys to scrape them clean.

But The Water-Babies was also a commentary on the biggest scientific issues of the day. As well as being a churchman and social reformer Kingsley was also an accomplished amateur naturalist. His friend and fellow scientist, Charles Darwin, sent him an advance copy of Origin of Species which Kingsley reviewed enthusiastically.

Published just four years later, The Water-Babies helped publicise Darwin’s theories and the debate that raged amongst the scientific community. But despite its progressive views, The Water Babies also contains insulting references to Americans, Jews, blacks, Catholics and – most dismissively of all - to Irish people. These views have played a role in the book's gradual fall from popularity.

Yet for every instance of casual prejudice there are many more moments of beauty and veneration. In The Water-Babies Kingsley – the ultimate “muscular Christian” – created a world ruled not by God – but by goddesses. Feminine spirits animate the narrative and are the source of all creation.

Church of England vicar and broadcaster, Richard Coles, dives into the debate about The Water-Babies and explores its strange contradictions and idiosyncratic quirks.

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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