Top 100 Children’s Novels (#8)
#8 The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1) (#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#2) (#2)(#2)(#2)(#3)(#3)(#3) (#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#4) (#4)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#4) (#5)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#5) (#5)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#7) (#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7) (#7)(#7)(#8)(#8)(#9)(#9) (#9)(#10)(#10)(#10) – 371 points
The Next Whole Earth Catalog described this as “a couple of neurotic kids nursing themselves back to health in a garden,” which just goes to show that every generation finds what they need here. Incredible that the same author wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy. – Susan Ramsey
Again and again, I find myself thinking about character as I create this Top Ten list. Which makes The Secret Garden a somewhat surprising choice, since Mary is not a likable child. But who wants to read about sweet little dears who never have to worry about a thing? I’ve always loved how Mary managed first to survive, and then to find beauty and love in a world entirely unwilling to offer her those things. Her request for a bit of earth is right up there with Oliver’s request for more food, and it ends up changing the lives of everyone around her. The garden itself is a character in the book, a place of refuge and kindness, like the best books themselves. To this day, I keep plants around me, as well as books. Mary taught me that. – Kate Coombs (Book Aunt)
The one book I read every year. Nothing revives a dreary New England-winter-that-seems-like-it-will-never-end than some quality time with Mary Lennox. – Eliza Brown, Assistant Retail Manager, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
I have the burning desire to reread this every spring. It’s the kind of beautiful-growing-life-stuff that is so much more powerful because it starts out in the depths. I love that it right off tells you the main character is the most disagreeable child ever, and then it kills off everybody she knows right in the first chapter, and then she meets more disagreeable people, and it makes the coming to life, not just of the garden but of everybody, MEAN something. – A.M. Weir (Amy’s Library of ROCK)
I know all the reasons not to like this–the shift in focus from Mary to Colin, the reassertion of the patriarchy at the end, the well-intentioned but nonetheless problematic depiction of India–but it’s still one of those books I return to year after year. If, as Perry Nodelman says, children’s books are all about teaching kids how to be kids, this one is the quintessential children’s book. And yet its depiction of "appropriate childhood" is so appealing to me, even now, that I keep coming back to it. – Libby Gruner
Every child wants a secret place of their own but it’s even better when the secret is shared with a few good friends. – Kristen M. (We Be Reading)
It still lives inside of me like ripening fruit. – Priscilla Cordero, Ocean County Library, Toms River, NJ
To my mind, this is almost a perfect children’s book. Indeed of the ten books on the Top Ten list, it is probably the title I remember best from my childhood.
The synopsis from the publisher reads, "Has any story ever dared to begin by calling its heroine, ‘the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen’ and, just a few sentences later, ‘as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived?’ Mary Lennox is the ‘little pig,’ sent to Misselthwaite Manor, on the Yorkshire moors, to live with her uncle after her parents die of cholera. There she discovers her sickly cousin Colin, who is equally obnoxious and imperious. Both love no one because they have never been loved. They are the book’s spiritual secret gardens, needing only the right kind of care to bloom into lovely children. Mary also discovers a literal secret garden, hidden behind a locked gate on her uncle’s estate, neglected for the ten years since Colin’s birth and his mother’s death. Together with a local child named Dickon, Mary and Colin transform the garden into a paradise bursting with life and color. Through their newfound mutual love of nature, they nurture each other, until they are brought back to health and happiness."
A.S. Byatt once referred to Frances Hodgson Burnett as "Perhaps the first truly transatlantic writer." This may strike you as strange, until you know the woman’s history. When The Secret Garden was written Ms. Burnett was living in . . . wait for it . . Long Island, New York! Tis true. According to Elizabeth Keyster in the October 1991 edition of Hollins Critic, " An Anglo-American, Burnett came to the United States while in her teens, returned to England for nine years in midlife, then spent the remainder of her life in this country." By this point in her career she’d already written Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess so her reputation was secure. According to Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children, "First serialized in American Magazine, the story appeared under the title ‘Mistress Mary.’ It sold out its first edition even before publication and was widely read by adult fans of Burnett’s earlier books, but it achieved little notoriety during the author’s life." Instead, she got far more praise for Fauntleroy of all things. Says Silvey, "In fact, her New York Times obituary never even mentioned The Secret Garden." Sacrilege!
Burnett reportedly loved anything by the Bronte sisters. This sort of makes perfect sense when you think of the title’s gothic underpinnings. And in the book Frances Hodgson Burnett by Phyllis Bixler, the author makes a series of rather good points about the book. For example: "In Little Lord Fauntleroy, she had portrayed a child reunited with his estranged family, and in Little Princess, she had portrayed an orphan who finds a new family. The Secret Garden has both." And later, "In Mary Lennox, Burnett created her most complex fictional child."
But it is A.S. Byatt who really pinpoints a lot of what I love about it. "Burnett’s children’s books have lasted because of an unfakeable quality of precise realism and observation–combined with an equally unfakeable hopefulness about the human condition. Burnett once observed that children like things–that was why she kept her doll’s houses full of delicate models of life. That was why she took such care with the details both of Sara Crewe’s possessions as a little rich girl (which another Victorian moralist might have sneered at) and with the things that she has, and the food that she has not, in her days as a slave in the attic. Little Lord Fauntleroy, a not-rich American boy suddenly confronted with English aristocratic possessions and customs, retains a grave curiosity about all this as well as a belief that people can be reasonable and kind which, despite the sentiment, are both oddly convincing. There is none of the sentimentality in Dickon, the country boy who understands creatures and plants, that there is in J M Barrie’s eternal children."
Our own National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature Katherine Paterson is a fan of the book as well. In fact, in Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book, Paterson chose this title as her favorite. She writes, "In The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson says: ‘If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, their sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.’ This was surely the gift The Secret Garden gave to me as a child, and although I’m no good fairy, it is a gift I seek to share."
Not that you can’t find objections to it, of course. In the aforementioned book Frances Hodgson Burnett by Phyllis Bixler, "The Secret Garden has its flaws. Some readers might object to its sentimental idealization of poverty and the class system in its portrayal of the Sowerby family and the gardener, Ben Weatherstaff. In a brief, uncharacteristic foray into fantasy, Burnett shows events in the garden through the consciousness of the robin and his mate, and she approaches her frequent silliness when personifying animals. Near the end, Burnett mechanically and unnecessarily interprets the garden as a symbol for the human mind; this discussion of the mind’s power—the danger of locking it up, the necessity of weeding out bad thoughts to plant good ones—is undoubtedly the reason some contemporary readers considered The Secret Garden a Christian Science book." Never really thought of it that way before. And that doesn’t even get into how colonialism has been viewed. Indeed, anyone who wants to know more about this might do well to check out the article "The Mem Sahib, the Worthy, the Rajah and His Minions: Some Reflections on the Class Politics of The Secret Garden" by Jerry Phillips in the December 1993 edition of Lion and the Unicorn.
There ain’t no nerd like a showtune nerd, and I count myself amongst them. And yes, I owned a cassette tape of the Broadway musical production of A Secret Garden. And YES I could sing "A Bit of Earth" to you if called upon to do so. And yes yes yes, there were plenty of folks who realized that the song "Lilly’s Eyes" applies bee-autifully to the Harry Potter series. Oh yes it does indeed.
In the course of my research into this book I hit upon one fact that stopped me cold. A.S. Byatt writes in the April 19, 2004 edition of New Statesman, "Gretchen Gerzina begins her biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1925 with the commissioning of a fountain in New York’s Central Park depicting Mary and Dickon from The Secret Garden." Wait . . . what? I’ve been in Central Park many many times over the years. I know about the two Alice in Wonderland statues and the Hans Christian Andersen. I even know about poor Balto, so how is it possible that there’s a Secret Garden statue I’ve never heard of before? Well, I don’t know how I missed it but there most certainly IS a Burnett Memorial Fountain in the Conservatory Garden area. According to Central Park, when Frances Hodgson Burnett died in 1924 people decided to honor her memory with a storytelling area in Central Park. Too bad we use Mr. Andersen instead these days (NYPL librarians tell stories in front of his statue all summer long). The theory is that these two folks in the Burnett Fountain are Dickon and Mary. I don’t quite buy it. Not unless Mary suddenly decided the whole wearing clothes thing was getting old.
Literary Digest said of the book at the time, "To describe adequately the delights of the story would deprive the reader of the joy and pleasure of first discovery–the sensation of surprise."
And now, the many faces of Mary.
My personal favorite, in spite of the fact that they got her hair color dead wrong.
I always thought that the 1975 BBC production, while it has perhaps one of the worst first scenes, had the best looking Mary hands down.
There was also this 1993 version which I never seen. One wonders if that fire briefly glimpsed was a huge plot point.
In the event that you would like to have your eyes roll entirely backwards within your own skull, I recommend you watch this trailer for Back to the Secret Garden. Americans and winking rabbits. It doesn’t get much better/worse than this.
NOTE: In case the comments confuse you, this post originally appeared on April Fool’s Day with a faux appearance of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as Book #8. I’ve taken that part of the post down now that the day has passed.
Filed under: Top 100 Children's Novels (2010)
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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