The Story of the Amulet, by E. Nesbit (1906), was the first time travel book I ever read, back when I was eight. That is my copy of the 1975 edition at right, and I must say it has held up rather well considering all the many, many re-readings it suffered (though I am not a spine-breaker, and never have been). It is also possibly the first time travel book published in English for children, although Puck of Pook's Hill, by Kipling, was also published that year, and I'm not sure if there anything earlier from North America. It was also the first of Nesbit's fantasy books I read, even though it is the third of a series about the magical adventures of Cyril, Anthea, Robert, and Jane (and their baby brother, the Lamb), and it was always my favorite, perhaps because of it being first.
The four children had previously (in Five Children and It) met the Psammead, a sand-fairy who granted wishes. The wishes went horribly wrong, and the Psammead refused to grant them any more. But when the children unexpectly find him trapped in a pet store they rescue him, and though he won't do magic for them himself he does help them find a magical artifact--half of an amulet. If the other piece can be found, the children's hearts desire will be granted. Their mother and the Lamb, abroad for their health, and their father, an overseas reporter in Manturia, will come back safely.
The half amulet can't do much alone, but what it can do is wonderful. It can make a gateway into any time in the past when the two halves were together. And so, aided and abetted (to a certain limited extent, due to grumpiness) by the Psammead, the four children set off into the past on their mission.
Time travelling visits ensue to prehistoric North Africa, Atlantis, Babylon, ancient Egypt, a ship of Tyre sailing to the Tin Islands, just pre-Roman Britian (with added visit to Julius Ceasar), the future, and the very very distant past. Nesbit does a great job conveying historical accurate vividness (with one exception, noted below) So much so that it is quite possible that this book influenced my decision to be an archaeologist (made when I was nine and my mother suggested it). Unlike the historical fiction I'd also read, which has no place for modern children to be part of the past, this might have been the first book that gave me the idea that you could visit the past and hold the things people made and used and tell their stories.
A girl never forgets her first Fall of Atlantis, and the waves crashing over the doomed city....and I've never forgotten Imogene, an unwanted waif from the book's present travelling back to early Britain and finding a mother who needs her and loves her fiercely. And I will always love Jimmy, the learned gentleman who lives upstairs from the children, and who not only provides scholarly commentary but who also ends up providing sensible adult guidance.
I did not like it at all when the Queen of Babylon arrived in London and caused mayhem (her time travel came about through a wish that the Psammead had been forced to grant after a visit to the amulet back in her own day). There was too much chaos, confusion, and difficult as her royal expectations clashed with those of the back streets of London, and her ideas of who owned the Babylonian jewelry in the British Museum were problematic. I was also put off by the preachy boy from the very dubious utopian future, and continued to be so as a grown-up.
But despite the little prig from the future, when I re-read the book this past month, for the first time in about eight years, I was pleased to find I enjoyed it as much as ever. I love Nesbit's dryly understated narrative humor (I find sentences like "It was plain that Cyril was not pleased" in a situation where he's very upset indeed to be very, very tasty). And she understands that young readers can appreciate recognizing themselves and be amused without everything being spelled out.
As a grown-up, I also appreciated the fact that the children, left to the care of their old nurse, do not remain obliviously to the hard work she's doing to keep them comfortable. They don't suddenly become young socialists, or even aware of their privilege in a broad sense, but they at least don't take it all for granted. However, as a grown-up I was profoundly discomfited by a visit to prehistoric North Africa where fair-skinned villages are attacked by darker, less civilized people. Sigh.
Despite that, this is still a favorite book...so much so that I am having an awfully hard time reading Five Children on the Western Front, by Kate Saunders, which continues the story of this family and the Psammead. It isn't Nesbit, and I am having trouble judging it on its own merits.