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1. Top Book Editors Pick their Favorite Children's Books of 2014

With so many wonderful books published in 2014, it's hard to know where to begin in making reading choices. One easy way to discover amazing stories is to take a look at Publishers Weekly round-up of top children's book editors 2014 picks (only books not published by their own company). In this article you'll discover the books the editors wish they'd snagged before another publisher got to them first, how they learned about the books, and why they love them. Their favorites also include some older classics.
The picks include:  The Bunker Diary; The Iridescence of Birds; Grasshopper Jungle; El Deafo; Blue Lily, Lily Blue; The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender; The Winner’s Curse; Half Bad; Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Brown Girl Dreaming; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; The Glassblower’s Children; Sideways Stories from Wayside School; Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children; The Storm Whale; The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making; Wild Rover No More; The Secret Garden; Egg & Spoon; and Grasshopper Jungle.

A few quotes from the piece:

David Levithan, Scholastic. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. "Grasshopper Jungle is a messy, repetitive, horny, ridiculous novel with a main character who will strain your sympathies about as far as they can go. And I love it for all of these qualities, and for the exuberance of its daring."

Nicholas During, New York Review Books. Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. "There’s something rather melancholy about the story in combination with Sendak’s illustrations, and, don’t ask why, I find it’s a bit of sadness that makes the best children’s books."

Brittany Pearlman, Macmillan Children's Publishing Group. Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Steifvater. "There’s a line in the book where the main character, Blue, reflects about herself and her four male companions (the Raven Boys): “We were all a little bit in love with each other”; and that’s exactly how I feel about every one of the characters. The magical realism and fantasy make the story truly enchanting, but it’s always grounded in character so that you feel completely immersed."

T.S. Ferguson, Harlequin Teen. Half Bad by Sally Green. "Half Bad by Sally Green has obvious comparisons to the world of Harry Potter, but the story unfolds in such a uniquely compelling way that I couldn’t put it down. I loved the themes of racism, genocide, and terrorism as viewed through a fantasy lens."

Liz Herzog, Scholastic. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. "When I brought the book home and read it, I loved the way Riggs had so artfully built a rich and engaging world all from a collection of found photos. It made me think about where stories come from, and how pictures can be a powerful jumping-off point for the imagination."

Megan Barlog, HarperCollins Children’s Books. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente. "This book takes the best elements of fairytale romps like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz and transforms them into a tale of daring adventure."

Be sure to visit Publishers Weekly for the complete article.

What were your favorite books of 2014 for children?

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2. Stuff I read today (and last night)


Stayed awake last night long enough to read the first chapter of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a book I’ve had on my TBR list (and my Kindle) ever since Ta-Nehisi Coates blogged his way through it in an excellent and moving series of posts in 2010. This passage about Grant’s mother made me laugh out loud:

“She still lives in Clermont County at this writing, October 5th, 1884, and is over ninety ears of age. Until her memory failed her, a few years ago, she thought the country ruined beyond recovery when the Democratic party lost control in 1860.”

Until her memory failed her a few years ago. Meaning up through and including her son’s two terms as President. Gee, Ma, thanks for the support.


This morning, during Rilla’s piano lesson, I returned to and finished Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s first lecture from On the Art of Writing, which I began on the heels of last month’s Helene Hanff kick. This is the book Helene took eleven years to rabbit-trail her way through, stopping to read up on the many books and thinkers “Q” references, and after Wikipediaing my own way through this one lecture, I can see (a month later) why it took her over a decade. I’m also enthralled by the snapshot of a pregnant moment in time: there’s Q in 1912, recently appointed to the brand-new Professorship of English Literature at Cambridge—let that sink in for a moment; there wasn’t one before 1911—addressing his students to explain his purpose and point of view in the position. He begins with a somewhat lofty exploration (in company with Plato) of the question of “What to do with the poets?” and then lays out his aims and principles. He won’t go so far as to say you can teach literature; he approves of the wording of his job description, which specifies “to promote the study of Literature.”

But that the study of English Literature can be promoted in young minds by an elder one, that their zeal may be encouraged, their tastes directed, their vision cleared, quickened, enlarged—this, I take it, no man of experience will deny.

And then, in a move that fills me with gratitude, he spells out exactly where he stands as a reader and a critic:

For the first principle of all I put to you that in studying any work of genius we should begin by taking it absolutely; that is to say, with minds intent on discovering just what the author’s mind intended…

Authorial intent. Got it. It’s refreshingly uncomplicated (and maybe somewhat quixotic), that school of thought, especially for someone like me whose undergraduate experience in the late 80s was a muddle of competing theories, most of which I didn’t know were theories, nor in competition. There was the Freudian professor, but we were too green to know he was a Freudian; I only figured it out (and that it was a thing at all, an approach to literary analysis and not just a unit in Psych 101) after I got a work-study in the English department and was assigned the mind-numbing task of entering his copious footnotes into the MS-DOS file of his very, very, very lengthy Freudian interpretation of Ulysses. Suddenly I had context for his insistence that every single story written by every single student in his Creative Writing class contained hidden Oedipal longings, no matter how earnestly we proclaimed that no, that wasn’t what we’d meant at all. The context didn’t really help; he went on doing Freudian readings of our work no matter how much we protested—actually, the protests made him all the more gleeful—but at least I knew on what grounds to ignore him. I felt conned, actually, resenting that the course description had not been more forthright about professorial hobby-horses. I mean, if you took Linguistics at that college, you knew you were getting a fervently feminist take on the subject, and I really appreciated that transparency (and enjoyed the course). Only later did I begin to wonder what critical theory informed my other professors’ pedagogy. The more I learned about theory, the greater my retrospective indignation. If we’re looking through a particular lens, I’d like to know I’m what glasses I’m wearing. If I’m signing up for your cooking class, I’d like to know up front whether you’re a vegan or a molecular gastronomist.

And so I find Q’s transparency terribly endearing. And it’s fascinating, too, to see him poised there in 1912, at the advent of Modernism, just before all these new ideas about interpreting literature (and writing it) were to sweep across the field. This article by a Cambridge professor captures it quite poignantly:

“He was also acutely aware that he was teaching at a moment when the direction of Literature was taking a radical turn, the turn to modernism. He believed profoundly that the literature of the present day should be taught and that students should be taught (as I believe, too) how to read modern literature. Yet he knew that, temperamentally, his own love of literature and his own ear for language were steeped in the literature of the past, and that he had great difficulty in appreciating the TS Eliots and the Ezra Pounds who were beginning to steal his thunder…”

Two decades later, Q’s student, F. R. Leavis, was to usher in the New Criticism that focused on close readings of the text alone, rather than authorial intent and biographical background—which would, in turn, be swept past by Structuralism, and Post-Structuralism, and all sorts of other schools of literary theory about which I’m much fuzzier than I should be. I really don’t know where things stand at present. The lit profs whose blogs I read (and the ModPo crew I’m so fond of) seem to take the kind of historical, biographical approach that I myself most enjoy, looking closely at the cultural/historical context of a work of literature and the author’s life circumstances in addition to unpacking the text —and then I’d say, as well, there’s a lot of looking at various works through specific, clearly defined lenses. Of course it’s possible I read the blogs I do because they take an approach that appeals to me. For all I know, my old professor is out there happily blogging away about the Freudian underpinnings of Mad Men.


On an entirely different note, today is the day Rilla met Mary Lennox. She wasn’t ready, last year when I suggested reading the book. Today, after a sunny (in all respects) hour in the garden, the time felt right. It was. Very very happy sigh from this lifelong Secret Garden devotee. And—we saw our first wild lupines of the year on the roadside today! Which means, of course, it’s time for Miss Rumphius.

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3. the secret garden (part two): yorkshire culinary delights

"After a few days spent almost entirely out of doors Mary wakened one morning knowing what it was to be hungry, and when she sat down to her breakfast she did not glance disdainfully at her porridge and push it away, but took up her spoon and began to eat it and went on eating it until her bowl was empty."

The Secret Garden is first and foremost about the wonder and magic of making things come alive -- the blossoming of an abandoned garden and two lonely, neglected children. But food is also magical and plays a crucial role in the story. As the flowers and plants grow, so do Mary and Colin's appetites -- and who can blame them, with pails of fresh milk, homemade cottage bread slathered with raspberry jam and marmalade, buttered crumpets, currant buns, hot oatcakes, muffins, dough-cakes, and the all-important bowl of warm porridge, sweetened with treacle or brown sugar.

Oatmeal porridge was eaten by both rich and poor in Yorkshire during Victorian times.
(photo by flirty kitty)

photo by daveknapik.

photo by girlygoogal.

My recent rereading of the novel yielded new insights about the self sufficiency of manor houses like Misselthwaite during Victorian times, and Burnett's advocacy of homegrown and lovingly shared food as a key component in establishing physical and emotional health. We see Mary change from a sickly, sallow, ill-tempered waif, to a happy, engaged, more caring individual. Colin undergoes a dramatic transformation from a pessimistic, overprotected, bedridden tyrant to a budding evangelical Christian scientist. Purposeful activity centered around nature, lots of fresh air, exercise and companionship certainly contributed to healing, but so did unlimited access to a bounty of locally sourced nourishment.

You may remember that the first time Mary wandered outside, she met Ben Weatherstaff, who was working in one of the kitchen gardens. A place like Misselthwaite probably had at least three kitchen gardens (averaging between 1-1/2 to 5 acres each) and an orchard, which supported a large variety of fruit, vegetables, and herbs. The high brick garden walls kept out thieves and large animals, and helped keep the heat in. Some of the vines and fruit trees were trained to grow on the walls for maximum exposure to light and warmth, thereby increasing their yield.

Victorian cloches at West Dean Kitchen Garden protect against cold and pests.
(photo by ANDREWPF)

Felbrigg Kitchen Garden photo by ANDREWPF.

Photo of walled kitchen garden at Knightshayes Court by rmtw

Rhubarb garden at Knightshayes Court (Tiverton, Devon, England).
(photo by rmtw.)

Mrs. Loomis, the cook, consulted with the head gardener, Mr. Roach, about what to plant, and made sure the larder and pantries were stocked with all the ingredients necessary to feed the family, staff, and guests. She also supervised the cooking of breakfast, luncheon, tea, and dinner. It is likely the manor raised its own dairy cows and chickens, or ordered milk and poultry from local farmers.

Beaulieu Palace kitchen photo by Antony Smith.
By contrast, Dickon's family, who lived in a small four-room cottage a few miles away, struggled with getting enough food on a daily basis. Susan Sowerby had fourteen mouths to feed; their mainstays included porridge, breads, the occasional bacon, and whatever Dickon grew in their small garden -- practical, sturdy vegetables like potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbages and herbs that could stand up to the harsh Yorkshire weather and be easily stored for the winter. Not a crumb was ever wasted or taken for granted, so that's why Martha was so shocked when Mary refused to eat her porridge her first morning at Misselthwaite (do you remember what she did end up eating?). Since they couldn't afford the brick walls of manor houses, cottagers like the Sowerbys constructed stone walls to buffer the wind and guard against animals.

But whether the children feasted on Mrs. Loomis' meals or Susan's currant buns, they thrived -- grew fatter, stronger, and more energetic, because the food was always made from fresh ingredients and shared among friends. The most delightful meals took place in the secret garden itself, on occasions when Dickon brought along a pail of fresh milk, and whatever baked goods his mother could spare that day. That she was willing to share what little food they had speaks highly of the generosity of country folk, and is in keeping with Burnett's idealized vision of pastoral bliss in the face of poverty. In this story, those who had the least seemed happiest, while Colin and Mary, who came from privileged backgrounds, suffered from neglect. Though Mary probably could have had anything she asked for at the manor, I'm guessing she relished those warm currant buns wrapped in a clean blue and white napkin. 

Currant buns by Evanswood.

My memories of Yorkshire food are unequivocally positive. While in London, we mostly ate at ethnic restaurants -- Japanese, Indian, Korean, and Italian, because English food, other than breakfast, was largely disappointing. But when we traveled up north, the food vastly improved. Was it the bracing country air, the farm fresh produce, the friendly people, or the romance of being in the culturally rich shire associated with the Brontës, James Herriot, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, children's author Arthur Ransome, or poets W.H. Auden and Ted Hughes?  

Haworth moors, Brontë Country (photo by Abigail 709b).

Yorkshire fare is simple, hearty, and rich with flavor -- comfort food designed to keep the body and spirits braced against a damp, harsh climate and adequately fueled for a hard day's labor. You've probably heard of Yorkshire Pudding, which is like a popover cooked in meat drippings. Though many restaurants now bake individual puddings, served along with the Sunday roast and vegetables, traditionally Yorkshire Pudding is baked in large rectangular pans, sliced into squares, and then served with gravy before the rest of the meal.

photo by Robbie Jim.

What else is Yorkshire known for? Cured ham, Wensleydale cheese, and a raft of baked goods (one needs extra energy roaming those heathland moors for the likes of Heathcliff).

There's parkin, an oatmeal ginger cake sweetened with treacle,
photo by Spider.Dog.

fat rascals, small cakes similar to scones containing dried fruit,

photo by skyoasis.

stottie cakes, a kind of flat bread used for sandwiches,

Wilfra apple cake, which is made with Wensleydale cheese,

singin'hinny, a lard-based pastry that whistles when it bakes, due to its high fat content,

photo by Lien (nottie van Lien)

and Yorkshire curd tarts (made with rosewater).

Yorkshire Curd Tart at Betty's Tea Shop (York, England)
(photo by elb_the_prof)

Then there's the famous Yorkshire oatcake, also known as havercake. Along with bread and currant buns, oatcakes were a staple in the Sowerby home, cooked in large quantities on a bakestone suspended by a hook over the fire. Some were enjoyed hot and buttered, while others were left to cool and crisp, propped up on wooden blocks or hung near the ceiling of the cottage so they could be eaten later. At one point in the story, Dickon suggests that Mary visit the cottage to have some "o' Mother's hot oat cake, an' butter an' a glass o' milk." Mmmmm!

Of course I had to try making some of my own. I love pancakes in general, but never made any using oat flour. The recipe from Inside the Secret Garden calls for a blend of whole wheat flour and finely ground oatmeal and yeast! It was easy to make, though you need to plan ahead, since the batter has to rise for about an hour before cooking on a griddle. Of course, the bears ate them with marmalade, raspberry jam, and maple syrup. Oatcakes can also be rolled and stuffed with savory fillings like cubed ham or cheese. I do like this recipe and will definitely make it again.

Oatcake batter after one hour's rising.

(makes 6 oatcakes)

Cornelius tries one out with butter and marmalade.

1 cup milk
1 cup water
1 oz. fresh yeast (or 2-1/4 tsp. active dry yeast and 1 tsp. sugar)
1-1/2 cups finely ground oatmeal
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. shortening (for greasing the griddle)

1. In a saucepan, mix the milk and water. Set the saucepan over low heat until the mixture is lukewarm to the touch, or 110 ° F if you are using a cooking thermometer.

2. Pour the warmed mixture into a large mixing bowl. Crumble the fresh yeast into the warm milk and water and stir it until it is dissolved. If you are using dry yeast, stir it and the sugar into the warm liquid and set it aside in a warm place for about five minutes, or until the mixture begins to thicken and bubble, before proceeding.

3. Stir the oatmeal, flour, and salt into the milk and yeast mixture. Add more water, if necessary, to make a batter. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or plastic wrap and set it aside in a warm place for about an hour.

4. Lightly grease a griddle or large skillet and place it over medium heat.

5. Stir the oatcake batter and spoon about 2/3 cup of it into the hot pan, spreading it slightly to make a thin oval cake in the middle of the pan.

6. Cook the oatcake for just a few minutes, until it is set but not browned on the bottom. Turn the oatcake and cook it briefly on the other side.

7. Serve the oatcake hot, letting each person break off a piece for herself. Spread the oatcake with butter and jam or marmalade, if desired. Dry any leftover loaves on a wire rack, store them covered, and eat them later, plain or with cheese.

Hmmm, would raspberry jam be better?

I think fresh raspberries and whipped cream is probably best!

♥ Needless to say, when I made this, there were no "leftover" oatcakes to dry. I found these light, fluffy and flavorful -- better than pancakes made with all purpose flour. And it was exciting watching the batter bubble up! I can see how much Mary would be comforted and satisfied eating these in the Sowerby cottage, cheered on by a tribe of boisterous children. I am now anxious to make some parkin and fat rascals, since I've already tasted Yorkshire Pudding and curd tarts.

Interesting that The Secret Garden was written during a time when many poverty-stricken children, who were forced to move to industrial towns for work, lacked proper nourishment, sometimes even fresh drinking water.  Burnett created an ideal world where children, rich and poor, had access to fresh food. This story celebrates the wonders that can happen when it is generously and joyously shared.   



Inside the Secret Garden: A Treasury of Crafts, Recipes, and Activities, by Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Eriksson (HarperCollins, 2001). In addition to great recipes for breakfasts and teas, it contains chapters devoted to garden crafts and background about Frances Hodgson Burnett, Misselthwaite Manor, and the language used in the novel.

The Secret Garden Cookbook by Amy Cotler, illustrations by Prudence See (HarperCollins, 1999). Recipes for Yorkshire Breakfasts, A Manor Lunch, An English Tea, The Kitchen Garden, Dickon's Cottage Food, A Taste of India, and Garden Picnics. Also contains juicy tidbits about Victorian cuisine and excerpts from the novel.

Recipes for Yorkshire Pudding, Wilfra Apple Cake, Fat Rascals, and Ginger Parkin can be found online here. Recipe for Singin'hinny is here.

Thanks for reading, and have a Yorkshire Secret Garden kind of day!

The Secret Garden (Part One): Another Peek Inside can be found here.

*Victorian Kitchen illustration used with permission, copyright © 2009 John Shipperbottom. All rights reserved.  


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4. Poetry Friday

I missed the snow drops this year, but the daffodils are coming up. The ones next door bloomed yesterday. It's warm enough the my plan today was to spend all day reading in my hammock, until I remembered that no leaves = no shade = blinding glare off a white page = impossible to read. Leaves are starting to appear on my butterfly bush and the grass is turning greener, which puts me in the mood to listen to my favorite musical, based on one of my favorite books, The Secret Garden.

Winter's On The Wing

Winter's on the wing,
Here's a fine spring morn'
Comin' clear through the night,
Come the day I say.
Winter's taken flight
Sweepin' dark cold air
Out to sea, Spring is born,
Comes the day say I,

And you'll be here to see it.
Stand and breathe it all the day.
Stoop, and feel it. Stop and hear it.
Spring, I say.

And now the sun is climbin' high,
Rising fast on fire,
Glaring down through the gloom,
Gone the gray, I say.
The sun it spells the doom
Of the winter's reign,
Ice and chill must retire
Comes the May say I,

And you'll be here to see it.
Stand and breathe it all the day.
Stoop, and feel it. Stop and hear it.
Spring, I say.

I say, be gone, ye howling gales,
Be off, ye frosty morns!
All ye solid streams begin to thaw.
Melt, ye waterfalls,
Part ye frozen winter walls.
See, see now it's starting.

And now the mist is liftin' high,
Leavin' bright blue air
Rollin' clean 'cross the moor
Comes the day I say.
The storm'll soon be by
Leaving clear blue sky,
Soon the sun will shine,
Comes the day, say I.

And you'll be here to see it.
Stand and breathe it all the day.
Stoop and feel it. Stop and hear it.
Spring, I say.

And a refrain from another, Wick, that I've been singing all week:

Come a mild day, come a warm rain,
Come a snowdrop, a-comin' up!
Come a lily, come a lilac!
Come to call, calling all the rest to come!
Calling all the rest to come!
Calling all the world to come!

Round Up is Over At Some Novel Ideas!

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5. “If it were a quite alive garden, how wonderful it would be…”

I have to clarify something. In the Two Gardeners ramble I said Katharine White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden was the first horticultural tome I ever fell in love with, but that isn’t exactly true. At first I wrote “the first gardening book I ever fell in love with,” and immediately I knew that wasn’t right: that honor goes to (for me, as for so many others) The Secret Garden—a book I have read at least twenty times in my life, and I think that is a conservative estimate. It might be nearer thirty.

So I changed “gardening book” to “horticultural tome,” not wanting, that day, to digress into the many pages of reasons why The Secret Garden is a book that shaped me, and either it was what taught me to thrill at the first sign of a green shoot poking out of cool spring soil, or else it gave me words to articulate that thrill I always felt. Either way, it was a book that explained me to me, and I would not be me without it. I was not temperamentally sour like Mary, nor sickly like Colin, nor wise like Dickon. I was probably more like Martha, the maid, than anyone else in that book, though I longed to comprehend the languages of foxes and larks, like Dickon, and to be daring and stubborn like Mary, and I admired the way Colin’s mind would fix on something and turn it over and over until he made sense of it. I understood Mary’s rush of emotion and thumping heart at the signs of spring creeping like a green mist over the dead, gray garden. I too yearned for my own bit of earth. (And got it: my mother gave us each a section of her flower bed to be our own. I grew snapdragons and moss roses, and they are still among my favorites and I cannot be without them.) Like Mary, I wanted to know the names of things and how to keep them “quite alive—quite,” and to converse with saucy robins and to smell the wind over the heather.

Sometimes I think there is no finer sentence in all of literature than: “She was standing inside the secret garden.”

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6. An introduction to classic children’s literature

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics have brought readers closer to the world’s finest writers and their works. Making available popular favourites as well as lesser-known books, the series has grown to 700 titles – from the 4,000 year-old myths of Mesopotamia to the twentieth-century’s greatest novels. Yet many of our readers first acquainted themselves with an Oxford World’s Classic as a child. In the below videos, Peter Hunt, who was responsible for setting up the first course in children’s literature in the UK, reintroduces us to The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, and Treasure Island.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Click here to view the embedded video.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Click here to view the embedded video.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Click here to view the embedded video.

Peter Hunt was the first specialist in Children’s Literature to be appointed full Professor of English in a British university. Peter Hunt has written or edited eighteen books on the subject of children’s literature, including An Introduction to Children’s Literature (OUP, 1994) and has edited Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island and The Secret Garden for Oxford World’s Classics.

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7. the secret garden (part one): another peek inside

"Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight. She was standing inside the secret garden."  ~ Frances Hodgson Burnett

 Illustration by Russell Barnett.

Whenever I am asked to name my all-time favorite children's book, I always say, The Secret Garden.

It's not like I've read it more than three or four times in my entire life, or that I can quote key passages from it at the drop of a hat. And as soon as I mention it, a bevy of other beloved favorites come to mind -- Little Women, Little House books, Ramona Quimby, Anne of Green GablesA Little Princess. I love them all -- but somehow, The Secret Garden has the tightest grip on my child's heart.

        Original 1911 edition with illos by Troy Howell.

When I first read it, at the age of nine or ten, I knew nothing of the Yorkshire moors, gorse, heather, or the myriad flowers mentioned in the book except for roses. Instead of crocuses, snowdrops, lilacs, peonies and forget-me-nots, I had grown up with anthuriums, plumeria, bird-of-paradise. I had never seen a robin, fox, or crow. But I knew loneliness and had a big case of "it's not fair," and often wished I had the power to boss grown-ups around and make them listen to me. Oh, to have an Ayah or servants at my beck and call!
Mostly, though, I was captivated by the possibility of having a secret sanctuary which totally excluded all the disappointments, hurts, and concerns of the outside adult world. I loved knowing that children my age were capable of transforming a place of willfull neglect into a thriving Eden, and that even if you were once a brat, finding the right friend and learning how to use a trowel could cure you of it. Hope for the downtrodden! Open the book, pass through the gate, cultivate your imagination as you try to survive childhood.

Some of Troy Howell's illustrations.

I suppose The Secret Garden hit me just when I needed it most. I did not grow up orphaned, rich, sickly or neglected. But like Mary Lennox, who asked for a "bit of earth," I longed to claim something for my very own, and reading this story allowed me to do that. I claimed whatever emotions rang true, whatever truths made sense, whatever details and descriptions a nine-year-old was capable of holding on to. I had never eaten oatcakes or currant buns, but I knew the comfort a fresh glass of milk and a homebaked treat could provide. I could pretend a wild robin trusted and liked me unconditionally, and that I could depend on Martha or Susan Sowerby when my own mother was not around.

European Robin photo by Steve Greaves.
Then there's the ingenuous belief that a small nobody girl like me, all on her own, could turn the corner and discover a wondrous, astonishing, albeit forbidden place! Why not? It was after reading this book, I think, that this startling thought took hold: you are capable of creating your own reality (in fact you must) -- plant the seeds early, feed, nourish, protect and tend to the ideas that matter most. There is a secret garden in every person's soul

North York Moors in low light by Tall Guy.

North Yorkshire Moors pasture land by ukawar.

Heather moorland, North York Moors National Park.

Recently, I read the book again, and it was, in many ways, like reading it for the first time. Because now I have the advantage of knowing what Yorkshire really looks like. I've wandered a little on those moors with the wind "wuthering" around me, heard the famous Yorkshire accent or Tyke, tasted some of that hearty cuisine. I've even been south to Kent, site of Great Maytham Hall, where Burnett lived for a time with her own rose garden and friendly robin, which is to say, now the story is sweeter, richer, deeper, more vivid and far-reaching. I wonder, sometimes, if my reading it as a child lay the groundwork for my decision later on to leave the insulated haven of O'ahu for a larger, distant garden two oceans and a continent away. 

Great Maytham Hall, Rolvenden, Kent, is now divided into apartments and
used as a retirement home (photo by Stephen Nunney).

The enclosed garden beyond the wall on the right was FHB's inspiration for
The Secret Garden (
photo by Stephen Nunney).

One thing I do know about England -- "this sceptred isle, this other Eden" -- is that gardens are taken very seriously, from the immaculate grand scale formal gardens of manor houses and parks, to the private gardens proudly and lovingly tended by the average citizen. Even small, non-descript rowhouses will have a patch of green out back, a natural calling card. If you're British, you like your lager at room temperature and your gardens tidy, and Frances Hodgson Burnett exploited the garden metaphor to its fullest. It was a place of destruction and tragedy, where Colin's mother had her fatal accident, but more importantly, a place of restoration, redemption, and healing -- for Mary, Colin, and Mr. Craven.

Cottage garden, North Yorkshire Moors, by Acomb Dave.

Hampton Court Palace (one of my fave formal gardens) by Sue@Naulaka.

One of the things I noted this time around was finding the Yorkshire dialect distracting at times; I don't remember if it hindered my reading of the story as a child, but I found myself stumbling over some of it. I also did not like Colin's pontificating and sermonizing near the end of the book. I found his scientific lecture about Magic over the top, an authorial intrusion designed to hammer home Christian Science/New Thought tenets.

The story itself beautifully illustrates the curative powers of nature, the importance of love, companionship, and friendship, and the power of positive outlook on health and well being without these added sermons. Dickon singing the Doxology also made me cringe. Just a little too preachy for me, though I doubt I found any of this objectionable as a child reader. Then, I read for story and happy endings and the high enchantment factor. The world of that garden was foreign, idyllic, pure fantasy. Who could have dreamed I would one day travel to that eternally green land a spinster schoolteacher, and emerge a blushing bride? ☺ There's magic there, indeed.


The references to India, i.e., partly blaming a location for Mary's ill health and sour temperament also gave me pause: "Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another." India is presented in an unfavorable light throughout the book -- a place of ugliness and disease with nothing to recommend it, whereas England is an ideal place where, with fresh air, exercise, and companionship, people can thrive (even Mr. Craven's travel to foreign lands is a sign of sickness). My mind swirls with the evils of British colonialism; I'm once again reminded of Burnett's Christian Science agenda, how times have changed with our current aversion to overt moralizing, and how "showing, not telling" is today's barometer for good fiction. Still, regardless of age, we all read for moments like these:

One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one's head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one's heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun -- which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone's eyes.

The Secret Garden was first serialized in The American Magazine (1910), before book publication in 1911. Surprisingly, it was not Burnett's most lauded work during her lifetime. She led an interesting transatlantic sort of life with her fair share of sorrow and adversity: losing her father at age 4, suffering from depression, surviving two failed marriages and the death of her older son, enduring harsh public scrutiny and condemnation of her lifestyle.


The book's been in the public domain in the U.S. since 1987, and is available in a skerjillion different editions, some with illos by people like Tasha Tudor and Charles Robinson. A recent edition published by Candlewick in 2007 contains a treasure trove of Inga Moore's gorgeous ink and watercolor illustrations. I love how the highly detailed pictures progress from soft and subtle to brighter and more vibrant as the children and garden flourish. In many ways, it's the secret garden as I have long imagined it. If you love this story, you must see it. 


Do kids these days still read The Secret Garden? Lois Lowry doubts they do, but would love it if they did, because:

I would like next century's children to know the languor of loneliness, the anguish of neglect, and the sweet frisson that secrecy gives. And if only, through the leisurely pace of pages, they could learn of the patience, tenderness, and nurture that once brought flowers -- and young humans -- into bloom. (Horn Book Magazine, 2000)


Just for fun, take this Secret Garden Quiz to see how much you remember.

And, don't miss Lois Lowry's Introduction in the Bantam Classic edition -- insightful and enlightening (click on the See Inside feature to read it in its entirety).

Private garden in the Cotswolds by UGArdener.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Yorkshire Culinary Delights from The Secret Garden!


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