4 things you didn’t know about these classic Puffin children’s books

There are some things about Puffin’s classic children’s books that everyone knows, like who Miss Trunchbull is and what a robin leads Mary Lennox to discover behind a locked door...

Puffin team

Yet, there’s always something new to discover about these famous children’s stories that stand the test of time, such as facts about their authors and what it was that sparked their imaginations.

So, whether you’re reading these to your children at bedtime or just getting nostalgic about your favourite childhood Puffin books, here are four facts that show there’s more to these books than what’s written on their pages.

1. The library Matilda goes to in the Roald Dahl classic was inspired by the Great Missenden Library

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

For Matilda Wormwood, her local library is where she could go and spend “two glorious hours sitting quietly by herself in a cosy corner devouring one book after another”. But, did you know that it was, in fact, inspired by a real library? That library is the Great Missenden community library, built in 1970.

Roald Dahl moved to Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, in 1954 and lived in the village for 36 years, until his death in 1990. It was his local library that served as inspiration for one Matilda would visit to discover new worlds.

And, it was a local library that was also an instrumental part of childhood for award-winning book blogger and writer Lucy Pearson from The Literary Edit, further instilling her lifelong love of reading. “I grew up in a small market town in Sussex and some of my fondest memories are spending my Saturdays perusing the endless bookshelves of my local library”, says Lucy. “I spent many a happy Saturday in Horsham Library, borrowing everything from Point Horror audio tapes to anything by Enid Blyton, Judy Blume and Roald Dahl books.”

In fact, Lucy connected with Matilda’s passion for reading and endless love of literature. Five or six years old when she first read Matilda, Lucy also re-read the Roald Dahl classic as an adult. “I immediately fell back in love with a character that I had resonated with so much as a child, and I loved how that even as an adult it had retained its timeless, nostalgic and charming nature. As someone who dedicates ample time to reading, I love that Matilda does too”.

2. Frances Hodgson Burnett found a secret garden herself in Great Maytham Hall, Kent

In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic Puffin book, a robin leads Mary to a key that unlocks a door to a secret garden. Mary gets to work restoring the garden, “and the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles”. However, much like Dahl and Great Missenden, a Frances Hodgson Burnett fact is that reality again inspired fiction.

Burnett lived in Great Maytham Hall in Kent from 1898 to 1907 when a robin led her to discover a rusty gate hidden by ivy. Behind the door, Burnett found an old walled garden dating from 1721. She began to restore the garden, planting hundreds of roses and setting up a table and chair in the gazebo where she would write.

“The walled garden still remains, [and] the basic layout of the ground is little changed since her time”, says Kim Horwood, Estate Manager at Great Maytham Hall. Kim believes that it was this wonderful setting that inspired The Secret Garden book. “Within the walls is a lovely garden and there are always robins in the garden and a large house with many rooms. It would be easy for an imaginative author to weave a story around these”.

Today, the stunning surrounding gardens of Great Maytham Hall are open to the public four afternoons a year with the National Garden Scheme.

Although Burnett left the estate in 1907, she didn’t write The Secret Garden until 1915. By this time, time Lutyens had rebuilt Great Maytham Hall in the style of Christopher Wren and hidden the doorway to the secret garden once more.

3. You can visit the place where Anne of Green Gables is set

Like Matilda and The Secret Garden, it was a real place that would go on to inspire the Anne of Green Gables author - and a much-loved story. One of the little-known Lucy Maud Montgomery facts is that she was raised by her Aunt Emily Macneill and then by her grandparents in her cousin’s home - the John Macneill home which still exists today on Prince Edward Island in Canada. This is the place where Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert would live and where the lovable 11-year-old redheaded orphan Anne Shirley would be sent - in Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables book (published in 1908).

“I remember thinking that Prince Edward Island sounded like this magical place [when I first read Anne of Green Gables]”, says travel blogger Lucy Dodsworth from On the Luce. “I had no idea it was a real place though”.

In 2018, Lucy visited Prince Edward Island and decided to go and search for the ‘real’ Green Gables. “It’s just as beautiful as I imagined from the books”, she says. “The red soil, the sand dunes, the lighthouses and the green fields were just the same.”

Carolyn Collins, who runs the LMM Literary Society agrees that Prince Edward Island practically became as much a character in the book as Anne herself. “Montogomery writes of Prince Edward Island’s natural beauty that approaches poetry”, says Carolyn. “She has a way of letting us in on the customs and manners of the time and place that enrich the setting”.

Carolyn re-read Anne of Green Gables as an adult and went on to write The Anne of Green Gables Treasury. “I was about 12 years old when I first read Anne of Green Gables. But, when I gave it to my daughter to read when she was about that age, I decided to re-read it and discovered so much more in it as an adult reader. I loved reading about Prince Edward Island and was intrigued by all the details that I had overlooked as a child”.

Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables in the old kitchen of her cousin’s home, which also doubled as a post office for the community. “Montgomery began writing it in 1905, thinking it might be a good serial for a young people’s magazine”, says Carolyn. Montgomery quickly expanded it into a novel, deciding to set her story in the fictional community of Avonlea, located on Prince Edward Island and inspired by Cavendish.

Lucy Dodsworth actually visited the ‘Green Gables’ house herself, now part of a National Park on Prince Edward Island. “You can see where she got her inspiration from”, she says. “It’s been carefully recreated to look like it would have done in Anne’s day, from the carriage out front to the puff-sleeved dress hanging up in Anne’s bedroom. It really did feel like walking into a scene from the book and was a proper shiver-down-the-spine moment”.

4. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in under three months in her home at Orchard House

As the Macneill Homestead in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island inspired Anne of Green Gables, Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts inspired the home that would house the March sisters in Little Women.

Although Louisa May Alcott published her first novel Moods in 1864, it was her autobiographical novel published four years later that practically gave her overnight success- and she wrote it in under three months at her desk in Orchard House, which can be visited today.

“I envy her ability to write so fast - Louisa was incredibly focused and channelled all that amazing energy of hers into her work”, says Susan Bailey, who runs the Alcott-dedicated blog Louisa May Alcott is my Passion.“I first read Little Women when I was 57, [but] my aunt gave me a children’s biography on Louisa when I was 10 after a visit to Orchard House and I’ve been hooked ever since. Going to Orchard House is like going on a pilgrimage”, says Susan.

Although Louisa wrote the novel in three months, she didn’t actually want to write her Little Women book at all. The request came from her publisher who wanted her to pen a “girl’s story”. As we all know, Louisa ended up writing something that was loved the world over - and something that inspired a community of fans who are passionate about Louisa May Alcott's books and the author's life. “People really connect to the life story of this amazing family, spurred on by their reading of Little Women”, says Susan.

Instead, of coming up with complete fiction, Louisa borrowed aspects of her real life. “For example, when Amy takes the cast off her foot, she gets stuck in the bucket and the cast is destroyed to free her foot. In real life that cast exists, and is displayed at Orchard House”, says Susan. “Louisa knew how to transform real life into a compelling story. Even though facts would be altered, the truth of the moment was enhanced through her storytelling”. 

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