Six characters from a classic work of light British fantasy are resurrected, then two of them are sent to the trenches of World War I.
If that doesn’t sound like a surefire recipe for success, that’s because it isn’t. The six characters are E. Nesbit’s titular Five Children and It, “It” being the irascible, wish-granting Psammead, discovered in 1903 by Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and baby “the Lamb.” After an ominous prologue, the story begins in 1914 as a sixth child, 9-year-old Edie, and the Lamb, now 11, dig the Psammead up again. He stays with the family throughout the war, as Cyril and Robert go off to fight, Anthea becomes a nurse and falls in love, Jane struggles against convention to become a doctor, and Edie and the Lamb grow into adolescence. Saunders gives the Psammead a convoluted back story and sins to atone for, which mysteriously trigger spectral visits to the front. He is a thoroughly denatured Psammead, cranky but also soggy and sentimental. Saunders does not attempt to emulate Nesbit's direct narrative address, but she does lard the dialogue with “brick”s and “bounder”s to evoke the period. As the Nesbit classic is not much read in the United States these days and World War I has little resonance with U.S. middle-graders, it’s hard to say who the stateside audience is.
Readers familiar with the classic will probably be dissatisfied with this vision of it; readers unfamiliar with it will be mystified. (Historical fantasy. 8-12)