Classic Juv/YA fantasy: The Water Babies

Charles Kingsley.  The Water Babies.  London: Harper Press, 2011.

So, there’s this kid named Tom.  He’s a chimney sweep, and his boss is a jerk, and clearly not the best role model, so one day, while they’re sweeping some rich guy’s chimneys, fate (or maybe that strange Irish lady they met on the way to the rich guy’s house) makes Tom get mistaken for a thief and chased hilaaaariously out of the house by everyone the narrator feels like naming.  They keep chasing him until Tom gets lost in the woods, and then he ends up somewhere far away, and then he falls asleep by a stream, and when he wakes up he’s been transformed into a water baby, which is a type of faery.  And then he has all sorts of adventures that teach him to be a good boy.

. . . . .

If I may, I think I’ll use that cheesy/obvious tide metaphor again, from my Undine review.

Ebb moments (i.e. not so good):

  • Very messagey messages about being good boys and girls, and not eating too many sweets, and telling the truth, and doing things you don’t like because it’s good for you.
  • 2-dimensional characters like Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, who even describes herself as a kind of robot.
  • Comments like this:

The seal put his head and shoulders out of water, and stared at him, looking exactly like a fat old greasy negro with a grey pate. [1]

Gerard Cheshire, in his preface, notes that The Water Babies shows an attitude of “British Supremacy” common in the Victorian era.  Narrower than that, it’s an attitude of English supremacy, because it excludes places like Scotland and Ireland.

“Why,” said Tom, “they are growing no better than savages.”

“And look how ugly they are all getting,” said Ellie.

“Yes; when people live on poor vegetables instead of roast beef and plum pudding, their jaws grow large, and their lips grow coarse, like the poor Paddies who eat potatoes.” [2]

  • There isn’t a clear sense of plot progression – it feels like the author is just making things up as he goes along, and at times, it feels like Tom is just learning the same things over and over.  He’s naughty, and then he gets punished, and stops being naughty.  Then he’s naughty again, and learns a lesson, and decides not to be naughty anymore.  Then he’s naughty again…and then the narrator goes on tangent after tangent (…so then Tom was trapped, and all hope seemed lost, and hey, did I ever tell you the story of the mayor of Plymouth?)

Flow moments:

On the other hand, the make-it-up-as-you-go structure isn’t such a bad thing.  As I read, I feel like I’m a kid at bedtime, and Uncle Charles is telling me a silly story about faeries and dragonflies, and the next night I ask for more, so he adds more scenes and characters, and sometimes Mommy listens at the door, so Uncle Charlie makes sure it’s a moral story about being polite and not eating too many sweets, and then Mommy goes elsewhere and Uncle Charlie says he was just kidding—

Don’t you know that this is all a fairy tale, and all fun and pretence [sic]; and that you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true? [3]

Overall, I like the narrator’s whimsical, exaggerated, sometimes sarcastic sense of humor.   Sometimes he reminds me of Jonathan Swift—at one point, Tom even visits the Island of Laputa, from Gulliver’s Travels, except that this island is full of turnips trying to cram for some impossible exam, and literally losing their minds in the process.


It was…an interesting journey, certainly, reading The Water Babies.  Uncle Charlie can sure spin a wild yarn.  A wild, confusingly tangled yarn full of messagey messages, but remember, you’re not supposed to take it too seriously.  It’s just a fairy tale.

Related Posts:

Classic Juv/YA fantasy: The Princess and the Goblin


[1] Pg. 90

[2] Pg 159

[3] Pg 51


  1. oh good grief I remember reading and rereading this as a child…but not the horrible rascist bits you quote! I have had no desire to re-read it as an adult. In defense of my rereading it as a child, I didn’t have enough books when I was little, and there are parts of Water Babies that are magical and fascinating…

    • It is magical and fascinating overall, definitely! It’s unfortunate that Kingsley fed into the discriminatory attitudes of his time, but luckily, such moments are few and far between.

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