4. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Recommended reading age: 8+
“The Secret Garden is one of my favourite children’s books as it’s such a magical, enchanting story of Mary and her deserted garden”, says Deborah, Managing Director at LoveReading4Kids. “It transported me right there back then [I first read it around eight years old], and did recently when I picked it up again to re-read it with my son”.
First published in 1911, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett tells the story of Mary Lennox and her discovery of a private walled garden growing roses after being sent to her uncle’s home in England from India.
“It’s a magical story that passes the test of time in spite of it first being published as a book in 1911”, continues Deborah. “The author’s ability to be truthful about her characters is compelling and this is the same for me with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s other fabulous book A Little Princess, which I also remember with such fondness. The message that flows throughout about the power of positivity is a wonderful one and had me welling up at the end”.
For Deborah, part of the charm of the story is the different backgrounds and experiences of the children: “They are brought together by a common love of nature. Today, without servants, these children would never have met and it is unlikely a ten-year-old child would be left to her own devices for months on end without schooling! There was no technology (glorious!) - just good old-fashioned exploration and outdoor fun.”
It’s a story where the characters really develop, particularly the story’s central character, Mary Lennox. “She’s my favourite character as I loved accompanying her on her journey from India to live with her uncle in Yorkshire after her parents die of cholera. As she explores her new home, she blossoms from a disagreeable child whom the children named Mistress Mary Quite Contrary. She starts understanding and experiencing emotions for the first time – realising she’s lonely, hearing truths, softening, learning to laugh, like people, talk Yorkshire and forge relationships. The first time she was given a present by the cottage full of fourteen hungry people via Martha, almost had me in tears. My son who is ten has read it, and he really enjoyed it. It’s on the list for me to read with my daughter (near the top with Ballet Shoes!) It’s just a pleasure reading these classic stories again and seeing them transfix my kids, as they did me.”
Georgina, founder of children’s book review site Toppsta, was also around eight years old when she first read the book. For her, it was a game-changer: “Having previously been hooked on the Famous Five books, I had hit a bit of a reading ‘wall’. Nothing else had quite matched up and I just hadn’t found a book or an author who grabbed my attention. That all changed when I picked up The Secret Garden. I felt as if my faith in books had been restored and there really were other writers with whom I could continue my reading journey (and needless to say, I haven’t looked back!).”
Like Deborah, Georgina was also a similar age to Mary when she first read it: “Perhaps it was because Mary was roughly the same age as I was, but it struck a chord with me that children could have adventures without adults. Like many books which have stood the test of time, it has some universal themes:
● The need to appreciate the good things in your life because there are always others worse off than you.
● That we have the capacity to change our behaviour - and it’s never too late to do so.
● That you can have adventures in your own back garden with little more than a sense of curiosity to get you started.
These threads are what keep the book relevant and appealing for children and adults both then and now. I can’t wait to read this book to my children when they’re a little older.”
Children’s author Abie Longstaff (whose books include The Fairytale Hairdresser series) agrees that it’s the universal themes that mean it still resonates with readers today: “The themes of restoration and recovery, of nature as a healer, of the need for kindness and human connection, are beautiful, powerful and enduring”.
“The Secret Garden was one of my favourite books as a child - a story I returned to again and again”, she says. “I loved the idea of a hidden garden, so well-concealed it was almost another land. The moment of discovery is so deliciously thrilling that I sometimes used to sit in bed and read just those few pages at the end of chapter eight (in fact, my old copy falls open to this very bit!). The story has remained in my heart because it’s more than just a mystery; it’s about grief and recovery, relationships and love. The bitter, disagreeable Mary has to learn to connect with others and to open her heart – the parallels with the neglected, cold garden and Mary are clear; and as the garden grows, so does she.”