When I think about the truly magical books of my childhood, many titles come to mind. Some of them, such as My Side of the Mountain and the Narnia books, I've written about here - books that I've loved, and have loved again sharing with my girls. There are many more that I haven't yet got around to reading to the kids, though, for one reason or another. So it was a very happy surprise when my eldest, who's 7 1/2, came home from school with a library book as her reader and announced, "Look, Mum. I borrowed this book called The Secret Garden. Mrs O says she thinks I'll like it. Do you?"
"Oh yes!" I enthused, startling her a bit with my response, I think. "You'll love it!"
My conviction that she, like millions of children before her in the hundred years since this book's 1911 publication, will love The Secret Garden is already being amply justified. The night before last, she went to bed with it at 8:00, aiming to read 10 pages before lights-out at 8:15. At 9:30, as I was finishing the wipe-down of the kitchen before bed, she came padding out to get her water bottle from the fridge, her eyes tired.
"Did you wake up, love?" I said, surprised. It's rare for her to wake that early in the night.
"No..." she equivocated, then said in a small voice, "I've been reading. With my torch. Under the blankets."
My effort to put on a stern parental face utterly failed in my wash of memories of doing that exact thing at her age. "Enjoying the book, honey?" I said.
"It's really, really good, Mum," she said earnestly. "I'm up to page 70 and I think Mary is going to find the key to the garden soon! Oh, I'm loving it! It feels like a magical world, except not magic exactly, more..."
"Secret," I finished for her, nodding. She's put her finger on one of the core appeals of this wonderful story - the feeling of hidden delights, private spaces, secret stories, that is so vividly realised in the evocation of the living, breathing space of a garden. One of my favourite aspects of the book was always the detail and love with which Burnett describes the growing world - you can almost smell the good earth in her words, see the plants unfurling, hear the robin singing his little song.
Another thing that A, my 7 year old, is very taken with is the character of Mary. She likes Mary precisely because Mary is cross-grained and disagreeable; so far from a picture-perfect heroine, she's a spoiled, cossetted terror at the start of the book. Mary's gradual redemption to her true self (which is still strong-willed, still obstinate, still feisty, but also brave, steadfast, loyal, honest and intelligent) is a story arc that never grows old for me. A is already seeing a change in Mary, and she's astute enough to know that it will probably gain momentum as the book moves forward.
It's a great thrill for me that A has discovered this classic by herself, browsing in the library, and was instantly drawn to it. It, and other books of its vintage, are my salvation to the problem of having a child that reads 3 years or more above her age-group, but for whom many contemporary authors do not produce subject-suitable material. She needs books that demand a high level of literacy but retain a child-centric view of the world, and Burnett, like another of my favourites, Edith Nesbitt, fits the bill admirably there.
As for what she's going to read next? "I saw another book in the library that looked really good," she mused. "It was called Charlotte's Web..."
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