One of the best things about being a writer for children is the excuse it gives me to read children’s books. I confess that I often enjoy reading children’s books a lot more than adult books. I also love to reread the books I remember from my childhood, for fun, and to find out who I really was way back when. In this not-very-regular blog you can read about my childhood favourites as well as the new favourites I’ve discovered as a grown up reader of kids’ books.
The Kingdom of Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh
Here are three magic stories about this magic book.
Magic Story #1
On Saturday mornings the arts program on my local radio station airs a feature called “Librarian Sleuth.” Listeners write in to get help remembering the titles of favourite books they read as children. Every few months a children’s librarian comes on to answer these questions and sometimes even help track down the books.
Until about six months ago, whenever “Librarian Sleuth” came on, I would say to myself, “I must write in about The Kingdom of Carbonia.” That, anyway, was how I remembered the title of this wonderful book my mother read to my sister and me when I was about five and my sister eight.
One morning during “Librarian Sleuth,” just as I was thinking, “I must write in about…” the librarian sleuth began to read out a letter that started something like this: “I remember a wonderful book where two children bought a coloured medicine that allowed them to hear the language of cats.”
“That,” the librarian sleuth answered confidently, “is The Kingdom of Carbonel.”
And that is the correct title of the very book I was thinking of at that moment.
Magic Story #2
I immediately went to my computer to order The Kingdom of Carbonel. Normally I would go to my local bookstore, but I thought that this book, being quite old, would be out of print. When I order books on the computer, I usually have them sent to my sister who lives in the United States, because the postage is much cheaper.
A week later she phoned to tell me that a package had arrived for me. I told her that she should open it, because it contained that wonderful book from our childhood, The Kingdom of Carbonel. My sister gasped.
Because just a few days before she had learned that The Kingdom of Carbonel had been republished. She had gone right out and bought a copy for her son.
Magic Story #3
A few months after that a received a darling Christmas card hand-drawn by the ten-year-old daughter of a friend. It showed two cats whose long tails coiled up a Christmas tree like tinsel. I wrote back to my friend to say that her daughter was a wonderful artist and that, if she really liked cats, she might like this wonderful book from my childhood that I had just re-read, The Kingdom of Carbonel.
My friend wrote me right back to say, “It’s funny you mention The Kingdom of Carbonel because we only just read it.”
I don’t think I need to say more than this about The Kingdom of Carbonel, by Barbara Sleigh. All you need to know is that it is about cats and about two children, John and Rosemary, who are lucky enough to be chosen as temporary protectors of the King of the Cats’s two kittens. And if you read this wonderful book, you will certainly very shortly meet someone else who has just read it and loved it, too.
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
If you love poetry— No! If you hate poetry. Or if you think you hate poetry, this is the book for you. You will not even know that you are reading poetry! It will just seem really easy because there are so few words on the page. This book will fool you, because not only will you be reading poetry without even knowing it, you will be reading a book about poetry without even knowing it!
Now, if you love dogs, I should warn you. The dog in the title doesn’t come into the book right at the start. You will probably forget that you’re reading a book about a dog (and poetry) and think you are reading about a boy who is stumped by the writing assignments his teacher gives him. But the dog is very much in the book, in the background all the time, wagging. So if you’re like me, you may want to have a box of tissue handy.
Love That Book. That’s what I have to say about it. My dear friend Allison gave me this book in 2004. We were both very grown-up by then, but it’s one of those books I wish I had read as a child. I hope you will.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
Though I’m not sure I ever read this book as a child, I’ve read it three times as an adult; it’s one of my favourite books ever. Period. For so many reasons!
First, Konigsburg writes like a dream. Her sentences (and don’t forget that’s what a book is, a collection of sentences) are clean and crisp.
Second, the brother and sister team of Claudia and Jamie are utterly real, their banter true-to-life and so funny.
Third, I loved Claudia’s secret desire, which grows and changes over their adventure. She and Jamie run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, sleep in a 16th century bed, bathe in the fountain and accidently stumble upon a mystery the whole Art World is trying to solve. “I want to go back different. I, Claudia Kincaid, want to be different when I go back. Like being a heroine is being different,” she tells her brother. Isn’t that what we all want, young and old, to be recognized as the unique people that we are, to be the heros and heroines of our own lives?
Fourth, I love the structure of this book, which is a letter from the cranky and very rich Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to a person who turns out to be important to the two runaways.
Fifth, just read it. You will find your own unique reasons to love it.
Rascal by Sterling North
A number of years ago I spotted Rascal on the sale table in a bookstore—Rascal the book, not the raccoon! (But imagine the raccoon hunched there, carefully turning each book over in his little hands, riffling the pages, sniffing them, then tossing the book aside…) I remembered loving this book when my mother read it to me as a child, though the story itself I had completely forgotten. I bought it and read it right away.
Rascal is the memoir of one year in the childhood of author Sterling North, his eleventh, in 1918. Sterling’s mother died when he was seven, his two grown sisters have moved out and his older brother is fighting in the World War I trenches of France. This leaves Sterling and his father who, Sterling writes, “allowed me to live my own life,” and Sterling’s menagerie, a 170-pound St. Bernard named Wowser, “many cats,” pet skunks and woodchucks and Edgar Allen Poe the talking crow. It is Wowser who digs out a family of raccoon from the base of a tree, separating the mother and babies. Sterling attempts to catch the mother (bare-handed!) and reunite her with the kits, but fails. The mother runs off, trailed by three of the babies, leaving Rascal behind.
Rascal joins Sterling’s menagerie but soon moves inside the house, eating in a high chair at the table and sleeping with Sterling. I think what must have thrilled me as a child were the near-human abilities of this strawberry-pop-drinking creature (not to mention the wonders of this olden-days bottled treat), who goes everywhere with Sterling in the basket of his bicycle, or on his shoulder. Rascal even helps with the war effort, gathering scraps of tinfoil from the gutters. (Raccoons are attracted to bright objects; foil and metals of all kinds were collected for the manufacture of guns and tanks.) I must have thrilled at the extraordinary freedom enjoyed by Sterling as much as the charming companionship of boy and raccoon. Sterling’s father takes him on a camping trip, during which time he has to testify in court in a town twenty miles away. He leaves Sterling and Rascal in the woods alone all day long for two weeks, only returning in the evening, which doesn’t trouble Sterling as he is routinely left at home this long while his father is away on business.
I, the adult reader, especially loved the intimacy with nature that Sterling North, the adult author, so vividly recounts. But kids will be drawn to the world depicted in the book, one better than any wizardly fantasy, where a child might live free of adult interference (mostly) with a raccoon as his best friend.
Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson
On my recent Canadian Children’s Book Week Tour in Ontario I was poking around the library at Beaver Valley Community School in Thornbury when I noticed a poster showing the covers of all the books that had won the John Newberry Medal. I recognized many, but one jolted a memory out of me: me around age five, leaping into bed, just as the rabbit on the cover is leaping over the Big House, so excited to be hearing the next instalment of Rabbit Hill. It made me realize how many memories of my childhood reading involve being read to by my mother, usually in bed, and how because of that I associate reading with warmth and physical closeness and love. And something else too, which was reinforced when I came home and reread Rabbit Hill: how intrinsic the illustrations are to the reading experience for a young child. While the parent reads the words, the child reads the pictures, so it is often the pictures, not the words, that take root in the memory.
I had no recollection of the story told in Rabbit Hill. In fact, the story really is secondary to the marvellous illustrations. Lawson, best known as an artist, illustrated the work of many other writers, though he himself is so far the only author to have won both the Caldecott and the Newberry Medals. The story opens with the Little Animals on Rabbit Hill “boiling with excitement” because “New Folks coming.” For years the Animals who live around the Big House endured “shiftless” tenants who did not even plant a garden. Worse, the Big House was then abandoned and all the animals have been hungry ever since. Maybe the New Folks will be planting Folks. As the Animals watch the various workers restoring the farm to habitable condition, their excitement grows. Finally, the New Folk arrive and, contrary to the expectations of this reader, they do not disappoint. The New Folk’s garden is unsurpassed. They even plant the Kentucky bluegrass that Father Rabbit, a Southerner, prefers. These are true animal lovers who wish only to co-exist with their four-legged (or winged) neighbours for whom life improves and improves. Because of this, there is almost no conflict in the story until two thirds of the way in when something awful happens to Little Georgie. Until then, the story is propelled by the charm of the animal’s distinctive personalities – Phewie the Skunk, Porkey the Woodchuck, and Uncle Analdas, among others – and Lawson’s gorgeous pencil drawings. Here is my very favourite, all the Little Animals singing Little Georgie’s song.
And here is Little Georgie singing it! You can too!
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
I first read Harriet the Spy when I was eleven, the same age as Harriet M. Welsch, whose influence on me was enormous. I began to go around with a spy notebook of my own, as did many of my friends. I assembled a spy outfit, like Harriet’s, to wear while spying. I became fascinated with dumbwaiters. Perhaps I had seen one on TV when my parents watched Masterpiece Theatre, but never in real life. The thought of riding in one the way Harriet does when she spies on Mrs. Plumber seemed indescribably daring. I wasn’t (and am still not) claustrophobic, obviously. In fact, at the age of eleven one of my favourite after-school hiding places was the bottom of the linen cupboard where I would curl up to eat a sickening concoction of margarine and brown sugar.
I reread Harriet the Spy in my twenties and enjoyed it just as much, though I was still too close to my eleven-year-old self to be able to stand back from the book the way I can now as a children’s writer in my fifth decade. What makes Harriet the Spy an enduring book is Harriet. In a kid-lit universe full of goodie-two-shoes protagonists and saccharine themes, Harriet breaks the mold. She is, for one, not very nice, judging everyone in her notebooks, daring to write things most people only dare to think. Her frankness and her political incorrectness are mildly shocking and delightful. (Speaking of the circus, for example, she writes, “I love the freaks.”) With her strict adherence to ritual (only tomato sandwiches for lunch, cake and milk after school every day) and her inability to comprehend the hurt her friends feel when they read about themselves in her notebook, suggests that Harriet may actually be the first child with Asberger’s Syndrome to appear in children’s literature.
The secondary characters are just as marvellous: Janie, with her chemistry set, whose goal is to blow up the world; Sport, the de facto parent for his starving-writer father; Ole Golly, her nanny, who has a quotation for every situation; and Mr. Welsch, a Broadway producer, constantly grumbling about show business. “Finks, finks, double-barreled rat, rat, rat, finks, finks, finks.” I haven’t heard the term “rat fink” since 1970.
Thematically, Harriet the Spy is also ahead of its time. Back in 1964, when this book was published, there was no label for what Harriet endures as a consequence of her notebook being taken from her and read. Back in the Sixties, kids routinely ganged up on their vulnerable classmates. Harriet, normally a force to be reckoned with, is rendered temporarily vulnerable when Ole Golly leaves the household to get married. Then, with the loss of her notebook, she is incapacitated. Fitzhugh presents a wonderfully nuanced conflict, instead of a one-dimensional, messagey book about bullying. The fact is Harriet has written dreadful things. It’s no wonder everyone turns against her, and as her shunning gradually becomes abusive, Harriet implodes at the same time she refuses to be a victim.
I love Old Golly’s subversive advice to Harriet on how to get out of her predicament. She tells her to lie. And I love how, at the end, Harriet finally gets busy at growing up to be the person she wants to be: a writer. She sees Janie and Sport, her two best friends, from afar, small as dolls. “Somehow this way she could see them better than she ever had before.” She begins to imagine what it feels like to be them. “She made herself walk in Sport’s shoes, feeling the holes in his socks rub against his ankles.” In other words, she begins to see them as characters she can empathize with, as Fitzhugh does in her portrait of this eleven-year-old spy, so flawed and funny. What is writing fiction but spying on people, writing down their odd habits, their faults, the crazy things they do? They just happen to be made-up people.
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery
Oh, why did I wait so long to revisit Anne? How could I have resisted this carrot-braided, chatterboxy, incurably-optimistic, tempermental and romantic delight for so many years? Close to forty years! In truth, it was because I worried about ruining the childhood passion I had for her. Like Harriet M. Welsh, Anne Shirley was one of my biggest influences. Because of Anne (with an e, please!) I put a priority on the imagination and situations that would enlarge its scope. The paths in the woods behind my suburban home were all named, like the woods behind Green Gables. I would accept any dare, like Anne. Like Anne, I seized life.
But I was afraid my adult self would be too jaded for Anne, that her long, enthusiastic monologues would seem saccharine.
“Oh, Isn’t it wonderful?” she said, waving her hand comprehensively at the good world outside.
“It’s a big tree,” said Marilla, “and it blooms great, but the fruit don’t amount to much never – small and wormy.”
“Oh, I don’t mean just the tree; of course it’s lovely—yes, it’s radiantly lovely – it blooms as if it meant it – but I meant everything, the garden and the orchard and the brook and the woods, the whole big dear world. Don’t you feel as if you just loved the world on a morning like this?”
Could I still read this and agree?
What happened was this: a few weeks ago I found myself reading a Very Depressing Book. It was a book for adults, a Beautiful and Important Book, but very difficult to read because of the horrifying subject matter. At the halfway point, without consciously deciding I needed a break, I just closed the book and said, “It’s about time I added a post to Kids’ Books I Love/ Books I Loved as a Kid. I think I’ll reread Anne of Green Gables.”
I was in desperate need of something life-affirming, even if it was saccharine.
Which, amazingly, it isn’t. Anne of Green Gables is a book of layered delights. The first layer is the character of orphaned Anne – so utterly lacking in self-pity, chattering her way into Avonlea. The second layer is the delight of recalled memory, of reliving my childhood delight. It turns out that I remembered everything. At the start of every chapter, I would say, “This must be the chapter where Anne breaks the slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head,” or “This must be the chapter where Anne gets Diana Barry drunk.” Part of the great pleasure was the familiarity, like visiting a favourite childhood haunt.
My new adult perspective adds a further layer. This reading I was acutely aware of how Marilla and Mathew age throughout the book. Marilla’s headaches get worse and her hair grows greyer. As a child I was as oblivious to these signs as I was to the aging of the actual adults in my life. Back then, I did not pick up the subtle references to Matthew’s heart condition. And this time, from the perspective of a parent with a growing child, I felt the bitter sweetness of Anne maturing, the way Marilla does.
While I was reading the book, I met up with fellow children’s book author Norma Charles and told her how much I was enjoying Anne. She said, “And now you get to reread Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island, and all the other Anne books.”
But I’m not going to rush. I want to enjoy a little longer the delights of this one. Eventually I’ll have to, though, because it turned out I remembered too much. “This must be the chapter where Gilbert Blythe dips Anne’s braid in ink,” I said. And, “This must be the chapter were Marilla embroiders the tiny pink rosebuds on Anne’s green dress.” But these things never happened in Anne of Green Gables. Now I’m dying of curiosity. In which instalment of the radiantly lovely, whole big dear world of Anne did these things happen?
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
I confess that I was not exactly a child the first time I read Ballet Shoes, but in my early twenties, though my delight could not have been greater had I read it at ten when I was studying ballet with Mrs. Dodds in Sherwood Park, Alberta. The recommendation came to me through a roommate who had kept a reading journal her whole life. She showed me her first scrapbook. Ballet Shoes was on her list so many times I simply had to read it.
The three Fossil sisters, Pauline, Petrova and Posy, are collected at different times by Gum (Great Uncle Matthew), an eccentric fossil hunter whose expeditions take him away from London for years at a time. Pauline is rescued from a shipwreck, Petrova from ill-fated Russian refugees, and Posy from a widowed dancer who has no time for her. Gum leaves the girls in Garnie’s care – Garnie, being short for Guardian, Gum’s great-niece Sylvia – Nana, and Cook, then takes off on another adventure, leaving the females with just enough money to last five years. It’s not enough, so they take in boarders: the wonderful “Lady doctors” Dr. Jakes and Dr. Smith; Theo Dane (a woman with a man’s name, like the author) who teaches at The Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, in Bloomsbury; and the Simpsons, just back from Malaya.
How extraordinary that a book written in 1936 is so outwardly feminist. When Dr. Jakes hears from Pauline the story of their unusual last name, she remarks, “I do envy you. I should think it an adventure to have a name like that, and sisters by accident. The three of you might make the name of Fossil really important, really worthwhile, and if you do, it’s all on your own.” The girls take this to heart. On each of their birthdays they renew a vow “to try and put our name in the history books because it’s our very own and nobody can say it’s because of our grandfathers.”
Because funds are short, the girls enrol in the Children’s Academy where they have the opportunity to earn money on the stage. Pauline grows into a gifted actress and Posy is a born dancer, but poor Petrova is more mechanically minded and quite miserable until she starts helping Mr. Simpson in his garage. In the end, though both Pauline and Posy seem destined for fame, it isn’t the sort that will put them in the history books. They leave the fulfilment of their vow to Petrova through “flying and motor-cars.”
Petrova gets the last line in Ballet Shoes. “I wonder,” she says, “if other girls had to be one of us, which one they’d choose to be.” That’s the wonderful thing about the book. Any girl reading it will choose her Fossil. No choice is best, or wrong. Pick your passion, start your adventure and, Go, girl, go!
The Adventures of Sammy Jay by Thorton W. Burgess
I’d like to thank my nephew Fernando for the warm memories he brought me last Christmas when he showed up with The Adventures of Sammy Jay as reading material. Thorton W. Burgess! How could I have forgotten him? Though my nephew’s edition was a paperback update, I immediately pictured the Burgess books I used to love, all of them blue hardcovers with a coloured illustration on the cover and black and white illustrations inside, printed on pulpy paper. I remembered my mother coming home and pulling another Burgess book out of her bag. Oh, joy!
It was a blue book. I was absolutely certain. Yet when I looked on-line for a photograph of the edition from my childhood, all books in the series were red. Obviously, I’d misremembered. Except, no. Then I found this photograph:
See the tattered red covers? Behind the tattering – blue! Either the paper covers were optional in the 1960s, or my mother removed them before I tattered them to pieces myself.
It took me all these months to read The Adventures of Sammy Jay left behind by my visiting nephew. In truth, I suspected I wouldn’t like the story, that my adult self would find it old fashioned and moralistic. When saw that Sammy Jay was originally published in 1915, I was even more worried—unnecessarily, as it turned out.
Thorton W. Burgess wore several hats: naturalist, newspaper columnist, radio personality who “taught millions of children to love and respect nature.” The Thorton W. Burgess Society carries on his work today in his hometown of Sandwich, Massachusetts. (Read about it, and Mr. Burgess, here.) The naturalist is as evident in Sammy Jay as is the storyteller. While the illustrations show the animals wearing clothes, Burgess doesn’t rely on anthropomorphisms beyond referring to the animals of Green Forest as “little people.” Yes, they speak, but this is for our convenience, for they clearly behave as animals; anyone who has ever listened to an argument between and blue jay and a squirrel has surely heard in their screeches Burgess’s translations. Even their gestures are true to nature. Peter Rabbit “scratched his left ear with his right hind foot and then scratched his right ear with his left hind foot.” The only unrealistic detail in the book is that Chatterer the Squirrel turns “pale” on a couple of occasions.
Sammy’s story is told in a folksy, conversational tone, with repetitions that help orient a young reader who might be tackling a single chapter at each bedtime, as was the case for me. Sammy is extremely vain, but he is also essentially good, as in this exchange between Sammy and his rival, Chatterer, who has his own personality flaw (greed),
What do you take me for?” demanded Sammy, angrily. “I haven’t got any love for you, Chatterer, and you know it. You’re a red-headed, red-coated nuisance, and I’m not a bit sorry to see you in trouble, but I wouldn’t turn my worst enemy over to such a cruel, cold-blooded robber as Shadow the Weasel.”
And he pledges to warn all the little people that Shadow is on the prowl.
Chatterer and Sammy try to outsmart each other as they vie for the corn in Farmer Brown’s corncrib. In doing so, Burgess offers us some usable wisdom about human behaviour via his animal characters, such as: “… when anyone fails to see cheerfulness in the sunshine or to find something pleasant in the blue, blue sky, there is something wrong with his own heart…[A]nger, you know, will take all the joy and pleasantness out of everything.”
As the anger between Sammy and Chatterer resolves, their rivalry becomes but a friendly competition. And once more Burgess leads his delighted readers into another Green Forest adventure. “You see, [Sammy] was very much interested in the adventures of Buster Bear. And if you are interested in them too, you may read about them in another book…”
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Though I loved The Wind in the Willows as a child, I can’t recall my personal impressions of it beyond glee. This is because I also read it to my son when he was five. Re-experiencing that glee with him, feeling it double in fact, seems to have overridden my own childhood memories.
The story is simple. Solitary, ground-dwelling Mole abandons spring cleaning. “Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow…” He ends up at a river bank where he meets Water Rat, who takes Mole for the first boat ride of his life. Along comes Toad, exercising his latest passion for rowing. He capsizes, then Mole ends up back at Rat’s house, where he lives for the rest of the book.
Most of the humour, and plot, lie in the antics of the aristocratic and deluded Mr. Toad. Tired of rowing, he becomes enchanted with the idea of travelling in a “gipsy” caravan and convinces Mole and Rat to come along. While on the road together, an accident infects Toad with mania. “(T)hey saw a small cloud of dust, with a dark centre of energy, advancing on them at incredible speed, while from out of the dust a faint ‘Poop-poop!’ wailed like an uneasy animal in pain.” The caravan is driven off the road and wrecked, leaving Toad, not angry, but bewitched. “Toad sat straight down in the middle of the dusty road, his legs stretched out before him, and stared fixedly in the direction of the disappearing motor-car. He breathed short, his face wore a placid, satisfied expression, and at intervals he faintly murmured, ‘Poop-poop!’” This ‘Poop-poop!’ sent my son, and me – as an adult and a child – into paroxysms of giggles.
Toad ends up crashing so many motor-cars he earns the moniker “Terror of the Highway.” His friends, including the stern and formidable Mr. Badger stage an intervention then lock him in his room to go cold turkey. Toad manages to escape, steals another motor-car, only to be apprehended by the police and sentenced to nineteen years in prison, fifteen of them for “cheek” in this interactions with the police. But prison can’t keep him for long and his hilarious adventures continue.
The Wind in the Willows is very much a love story to nature, in particular the English countryside. The beauty and elegance of Grahame’s language testifies to this: “To all appearance the summer’s pomp was still at fullest height, and although in the tilled acres green had given way to gold, though rowans were reddening, and the woods were dashed here and there with a tawny fierceness, yet light and warmth and colour were still present in undiminished measure, clean of any chilly premonitions of the passing year.”
But it is also a testament to friendship. I love how Toad’s friends persevere with him despite his “conceit and boasting and vanity.” Rat tells him, “You know you must turn over a new leaf sooner or later, and now seems a splendid time to begin; a sort of turning point in your career. Please don’t think that saying all this doesn’t hurt me more than it hurts you.” So often in fiction, difficult characters are one-dimensional. They get their comeuppance in the end and are tossed aside. Toad is a complex amphibian, as kind and generous as he is conceited and vain. If by the end “(h)e was indeed and altered Toad” his transformation was a result of more than a little help from his friends.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This book is an anomaly for this list. I didn’t actually read it as a child, or remember having had it read to me. Nor did I wholeheartedly love it when I read it for Kids Books I Love/Books I Loved as a Kid. But it’s included on so many childhood favourites lists that I thought I would be remiss as a children’s author not to give it a go. Nostalgia was a further motivation, for I have a copy in my possession. It is inscribed to my sister, “Christmas 1969,” and bears enough stains to prove it was read and loved in our home, possibly over a mug of hot chocolate by the colour of the blotches. Where was I? Six years old in 1969. My sister was nine. Likely she read it on her own and banished me from her room.
As the title suggests, The Secret Garden is about a secret garden. In literature, gardens and flowers can be overly-freighted with symbolic meaning, which is certainly the case here. Heavy-handedness and an earnest tone are my main objections to this book, which I nevertheless read compulsively. Any book with secrets keeps us turning the pages. I was also curious why, despite its significant flaws, The Secret Garden is so loved.
The story concerns Mary Lennox, who is horrible at the beginning of the book, “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived” with a “sour little face”. She is more than once described as “yellow,” referring to her sallowness. After the death of her parents, who ignored her (who can blame them?), she comes to live on her uncle’s estate, Misselthwaite Manor, in Yorkshire. As there are purportedly no playmates for her, “Mary, Mary quite contrary” is sent to play outside on her own. She has already learned that on the death of her aunt, her uncle, Mr. Craven, locked the walled garden that she loved, dug a hole and buried the key. Mary is determined to find that key. And so, as the mystery of the garden gives her a purpose, the salubrious Yorkshire air improves her looks. “Th’ air from th’ moor has done thee good already,” the housekeeper tells her. “Tha’rt not nigh so yeller and tha’rt not nigh so scrawny. Even tha’ hair doesn’t slamp down on tha’ head so flat.” Mary begins, like the garden, to blossom — to make friends, to understand the Yorkshire dialect, and to actually like porridge.
There is another secret in Misselthwaite Manor, of course. Hidden in the house is a boy as repellent as Mary once was, bed-ridden Colin, shut away since the death of his mother, assumed to be a hunch-back doomed to die prematurely. Mary recognizes herself in petulant, tantrumming Colin and helps him, through gardening, not only to walk again, but to embrace life.
Childhood is a time of growing and changing. Year-by-year – sometimes month-by- month! — children become different people. One day they can’t reach the taps; suddenly they can. Words on a page are just squiggles; now they make sense. Perhaps what has drawn children to this story generation after generation are the dramatic character arcs Hodgson creates for Mary and Colin, who by the end of the book are utterly transformed.
But are children still drawn to such a story in the 21st century? They’re born into a world that they increasingly experience virtually, via their devices. Can they really relate to pages of description about pruning rose bushes and planning bulbs?
I got my answer soon enough. I happened to be reading The Secret Garden while on holiday with friends. Their 14 year-old son, not at all bookish, as glued to his phone as the next kid, one day noticed what I was reading. “The Secret Garden!” he said. “I loved that book! They read it to us at school.”
Terrible, Horrible Edie by E.C. Spykman
I had entirely forgotten this wonderful book! It came to me via the author Marina Endicott who wrote a piece about it in Brick. When I praised her for it, she ordered a vintage copy to be delivered to my house. 75¢ was the original price, “Slightly higher in Canada”. As soon as I clapped eyes on the cover I recognized that impish girl with ragged yellow hair and an enormous red bow on her head. In her hands are a long curved knife and the yellow braid she has just sawn off.
As a child, I loved stories about independent children who kick at the traces and do things their way. Many children do and thus live vicariously through a gutsier protagonist. But I know from experience that such appreciation isn’t universal. When my son was small scenarios horrifying to me – alien invasions prompting the End Times, usually – troubled him not, but when presented with a realistic story where kids were mean to each other or got in trouble with their mothers, he’d shout, “Stop reading!”
Impulsive, daring Edie Cares doesn’t have a mean bone in her, but she has an overly-frank mouth. One of my favourite Edie retorts comes when the babysitter, to punish Edie, won’t tell her where she’s taken her dog, Widgy. “You are a very naughty girl,” Miss Black says, just as Widgy, already rescued by Edie, reappears. “‘And you are an old hunk of blubber,’ said Edie, outrageously.”
Terrible, Horrible Edie is about the summer the Cares children – teenagers Theodore, Jane and Hubert, ten year-old Edie, and their two step-sisters, the Fair Christine (no explanation is given for this unusual moniker), five, and Lou, three — spend at their Aunt Louise’s house on the Massachusetts coast while their father and step-mother, whom they call “Madame” (also unexplained), are holidaying in Europe. The book eschews causal plot. Other than the mystery of a jewel theft next door that covers several chapters, the story is a series of random adventures ordered chronologically. These include: Edie and Hubert getting caught in a speed trap on the way to the shore in their father’s Ford overpacked with supplies and the family menagerie – a fierce troupial, Edie’s goat, Theodore’s spider monkey, Father’s beagle and, of course, Widgy; Edie having all sorts of adventures sailing solo without a PDF ever mentioned; a hurricane; a visit by ball lightening; and Edie rescuing the stolen jewels by putting them all on and swimming to shore in the dark. As exciting as all this is, the real appeal of this book for me was the witty, slanging dialogue, vibrant characterization, and the ball-lightening energy of Spykman’s prose. The book glitters as much as those stolen jewels with astonishing observations and asides. Marina Endicott mentions one in her piece. When Edie hugs her youngest stepsister it’s “just like eating a new doughnut while you put your face in sweetpeas.” After the hurricane, a mouse family in the player piano drowns. Here’s the wonderful exchange that follows the sad discovery:
The mice were dead too – wetly, pinkly dead. Hubert was for dropping them in the bushes. “No,” Edie said, “maybe they’ll come to life like some people do.’ She spread them out in a row in the sun.
“When they start to stink,” said Hubert comfortingly, “don’t ask me to bury them.”
According to the back of the book, Terrible, Horrible Edie “is an outstanding piece of original writing that stems from the author’s own childhood.” I had already guessed this, for Spykman’s idiosyncratic, minutely detailed depiction of the Cares family feels too real to be made up. What a family! “The most entertaining … in literature since the Bastables,” wrote the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, and I concur. (More about the Bastables in a later post.)
In a middle chapter, Edie goes to visit a friend and comes back with this observation: “Nothing much ever seemed to happen at other people’s houses except changing your clothes and being polite, and what was the worst, there was nothing to eat from morning to night except at meals.” Which brings me to my one complaint about this book. Nothing ever happens at my house!