Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 9, 2012

The Secret Garden Book Club

Writing a syllabus for a children’s literature survey course can get messy, even after you’ve determined which great books to use and sighed over great books you’ll have to leave out. I want to cover the classics, so there’s some movement from Alice in Wonderland to more recent gems, such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret and American Born Chinese. There’s also a forward motion in readers’ ages, from toddlers to teens. The weaving isn’t a science or even an art, and it’s just serendipity that we’re reading The Secret Garden and Bridge to Terabithia in spring, which brings about change in both novels. And the fact that I love sanctuaries in books (students begin the course writing about their own remembered hideouts) and that after visiting Wonderland, Neverland, Narnia, and Oz, these two novels show special places behind a wall or across the river, but ones that can be accessed with a key or bridge, still part of the ordinary world.

Anyway, I’ve been so enjoying Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden that I’ve nudged some of you to read or reread it. Burnett wrote for both adults and children, and in many ways, this is a better book for adults. I’m not in a book club, but remembering my daughter’s Laura Ingalls Wilder fan club, I’m thinking that a club means you mostly have to read and admire. Snacks, dress up, posters, and field trips are also options, but I’m afraid you’re on your own there.

If you want to get literary, you’ll notice strands about imperialism, as Mary Lennox moves from India to England, and remembers her childhood while calling Colin a Rajah, playing with miniature ivory elephants, and referring to mysticism in the culture. Whenever you’ve got flowers, you’ve got sex, but we don’t need to go there: many of us are still getting over Fern leaving Charlotte for Henry Fussy.  There are allusions to paganism, Christianity, and Burnett’s take on Mary Baker Eddy, all of which go into what what Mary calls Magic. I think Burnett would agree with Colin and Mary’s mother, Susan Sowerby, who compares the world to an orange we’ve got to learn to share, and says it doesn’t matter what you call “the big good thing….What’s a name to the joy maker?”

Besides the old house with about a hundred rooms, the mysterious sounds, the girl who stamps her foot and learns to talk to robins, the secret place where friends work and play may be the reason The Secret Gardenhad held its own through the years. One of my students mentioned that not only must the children keep their time in the garden secret because they’ve been forbidden to go there, but they simply need a place of their own, a place away from the rule-making adults. But what do you think? What makes this book matter to you? Gush or raise questions. Everything is allowed. Extra credit if –- no, it’s a club! – well, extra joy for you if you enter a garden and kiss a crocus and listen to a robin’s song.  All comments welcome! One word, or silence, too, is all you need to join the club.

And I’ll leave you with a quote from Burnett:  “I never could write anything that would bring unhappiness into the world.  There is enough of that in all our lives that we cannot get away from. What we all want is more of the other things — life, love, hope — and an assurance that they are true.”



  1. I never have figured out why I love this book so much. It’s not the gardening, as much as I love it, because I have always hated gardening in real life–yes, since I was a child. 🙂 I think it’s, somehow, Mary gaining such strength. One of my absolute favorite storylines is her jump-rope–how few skips she can take at once the first time she goes out, then how strong she gets with practice. How she goes from needing help to get dressed, to throwing on her own clothes, gulping down her breakfast, and running outside to Dicken or down the halls to Colin. There IS magic in those moors, and I think it’s something about the transformation they create that has always held me.

  2. Yes, that jump rope, and when light dawns on Mary that this perfect gift from Susan Sowerby was made possible from her daughter Martha’s small salary. And the moors, which look dead to her as she arrives, then begin to seem alive.

    Of course Colin gains strength, too, but many of us admitted he’s just not as compelling as Mary. One student said maybe he just needed Vitamin D. And that this story couldn’t take place today because he’d just play video games and never feel a need to get out. Sadly, could be true!

    So glad you’re in the club, Becky!

  3. I like your thoughts on The Secret Garden, Jeannine. Maybe it is a book for grown ups now, but it certainly wasn’t when I was a child. I imagine some kids can still relate to it. It’s a book about being lonely and then making connections with flowers and and birds and animals and finally people. In spite of computers, etc., I do think it’s a theme kids still can relate to. The musical of The Secret Garden annoyed me in some ways because so much of it is imagining of the lives of the ghosts who haunt the house–who cares about those dead grown ups???!!! To me Dickon was the perfect person. I loved his family, too. They were all so healthy and wholesome and yet also magical. It rang true to me–that the best people were not the upper class. I also always liked Mary’s and Colin’s bad-tempers. That made them seem real, too. Are kids allowed to have secret lives anymore? Maybe that’s the appeal of the internet for them in some ways–a place where adults won’t necessarily follow them? I dunno.

  4. Amy, I do think Secret Garden was read more often when we were young; A Little Princess seems more favored now, which I also like. And I do have some students who loved Secret Garden as children, and many were smitten with Dickon, as I was. He talks to robins! He hangs out with a fox!

    I agree about the bad tempers being crucial, though we found this gender related, with Mary’s anger, like that of Jo March’s, being more compelling than a boy’s more expected outbursts.

    I love the musical by Marsha Norman, though I agree the kids are at the center. But the voices through the gauze amazed me. And the ending: Three people shouldn’t be so hard to remember.

    Sir, may I be one of them?

    Fascinating point about computers, Amy. So many had secret places in attics or boxes or outdoors, where many would not be allowed to go alone these days.

    • Why do they call colin rajah and how is he a rajah

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