Nurse Matilda by Christianna Brand is one of those books that the child in any of us would enjoy. When I consider recommending it, however, I realize that I have to wear two different hats. Wearing the hat of my inner child, I adore the book. It is delightful. It is moral. It is creative. It is magical. It is fun. It might even be instructive.
Wearing the hat of a mother, however, I cringe ever so slightly. I really don’t think there’s anything objectionable in the book, but I cringe because I don’t have Nurse Matilda’s magical staff. And while her magic is part of what makes her endearing, it’s also what makes her frustrating.
If I had a magical staff, and could creatively bind my children to their bad behavior, such that they want to change it themselves, how much easier would my life be? But I can’t do that. This is where Nurse Matilda (and books like it including Mary Poppins) are a bit tiresome for the mother out there who longs for that magical shortcut to good old-fashioned parenting.
Setting aside the cheats that Nurse Matilda gets to employ, is this a book that is worthy? Is it true, is it good, is it beautiful? Yes. I think so. And the movie is equally delightful, albeit a bit different.
Nurse Matilda is the rescue nanny. The magical, ugly, tough, no-nonsense nanny who only comes when you don’t want her and leaves as soon as you do. That’s the magic. That’s the curse. This is the nanny who takes wild and rebellious children and reforms them.
The magic in this book is like that of Edith Nesbit – more mystical than anything else. And definitely not incantational. It is never expressly said that Nurse Matilda is using magic. We just know that when she taps her staff, the children find that they are no longer in control of their actions. This situational magic is employed by Nurse Matilda when the children have chosen bad behavior. Instead of disciplining them, she magically binds them to their bad behavior that they can’t stop doing it even when they want to. Let’s call it a magical love and logic discipline style.
This 1964 children’s novel is likely set in Victorian England and is strikingly similar to Mary Poppins. In my opinion, Nurse Matilda is more friendly, more whimsical and more enjoyable than its more famous “cousin,” Mary Poppins. Popular at the time of writing, there is a weird dream sequence at the end that borders on brooding. I could do without it but it is not a deal breaker for my enjoyment of the book overall. Where Mary Poppins is a bit dark and unsettling, Nurse Matilda stays pretty light.
The 2005 Emma Thompson movie, Nanny McPhee, is closely based on Nurse Matilda. Adaptations were made, of course, and characters changed, but the essence of the two stories are very closely related. If I had to choose, I would say that the film is better than the book. The sequel is a bit more aggressive, not as charming, but pretty family friendly as well. (The movies can be purchased as a 2 pack for a big savings.) The book is charming and appreciated by my 5, 7 and 9 year olds.