The Secret Garden

Book review by
Katherine Kearns, Common Sense Media
The Secret Garden Book Poster Image
Parents recommend
Classic novel inspires love of nature.

Parents say

age 8+
Based on 14 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 37 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers will learn the names of plants and flowers (rose, lilac, daffodil, crocus, etc.), the difference between seeds and bulbs, and how to tell when a dormant plant is coming back to life in spring. They'll also learn a bit about the lifestyle of English aristocrats at the turn of the 20th century and how poorly colonizers treated India and its people.

Positive Messages

Like gardens, children need lots of care, fresh air, and sunshine to blossom. Friendship and nature are healing, as is learning to take care of yourself.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Martha and her mother's easy, down-to-earth ways help Mary develop her love of nature and compassion for other creatures. Dickon (age 12) also sets a nice example, especially for boys, with his love and respect, and almost magical affinity, for all living things. Colin and Mary both grow in significant ways over the course of the story, changing from being selfish and demanding to generous, open, and supportive. Mary's experiences in India reflect the country's history as a place that was unjustly colonized; she speaks about the people there in a patronizing, racist way.

Violence

Mary recalls that when she lived in India, she slapped her Ayah (nursemaid) whenever she was angry. Ben Weatherstaff talks about a man who got drunk and beat his wife. Mary's parents die early in the book, leaving her orphaned. Characters argue.

Language

Racist references to "the blacks" (i.e. natives of India).

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Early in the book, Mary drinks a glass of wine that an adult left unfinished; it puts her to sleep. Ben Weatherstaff tells the children about a man who went to the pub and got "drunk as a lord."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden is a beautifully written book about two selfish, disagreeable English cousins -- Mary and Colin -- whose lives and dispositions are transformed when they find their way into a locked, walled garden. Friendship and the restorative powers of nature help the children gain good spirits and health. For generations, this 1909 novel has inspired a love of nature and simple pleasures in young readers. That said, it includes some racist ideas about class, colonization, and Indian people. Indians are referred to as "natives" and "blacks," and Mary is angry and insulted when she's compared to them. Mary also takes an unkind, superior attitude toward servants and recalls losing her temper and slapping her Ayah (Indian nursemaid). Early in the novel, Mary's parents and many servants in the household die of cholera, leaving 10-year-old Mary alone. With no one to care for her, Mary becomes thirsty, drinks an abandoned glass of wine from her parents' dining table, and goes to sleep. Alcohol is mentioned again when the groundskeeper at Misselthwaite manor, Ben Weatherstaff, talks about another man being "drunk as a lord" and beating his wife. The Secret Garden has been made into a few different movie versions, including a 2020 adaptation starring Dixie Egerickx as Mary and Colin Firth as her uncle.

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User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byMomtotwotoo October 6, 2015

Strong Themes of Death and Parental Abandonment and Neglect

I recently read this with my advanced 5yo daughter. While she liked the book, and found it readable and easy to follow -the abridged version we read doesn'... Continue reading
Adult Written byMaraS March 18, 2019

Classic, but beware is a product of its time

I loved this book when I was little and loved reading it to my kids (ages 7 and 9) but parents should be warned, this book was written in 1911 and the descripti... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written bygilly_boy January 13, 2012

The magic is in everyone.

I like the characters and the garden. The garden is said to be magical and can heal anyone who enters. I think anyone would me interested in the book if they li... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written bySi_le_bon_sens_... December 17, 2008

Don't let classics like this die

I feel compelled to write this review by the astonishing number of people I have heard/seen saying that this is a boring book. I hate to say it, but society is... Continue reading

What's the story?

Francis Hodgson Burnett's classic novel THE SECRET GARDEN begins in India, which at the turn of the 20th century was still part of the British Empire. Ten-year-old Mary Lennox has been living there with her parents, though her father is rarely present and her mother is most interested in dinner parties, so Mary's main caretaker has been her Ayah (nursemaid). Mary's parents and many of the servants in their household die of cholera, and the adults who survive flee the house, leaving Mary alone and unaware of what has happened. She's later discovered and sent to live with her uncle at Misselthwaite Manor, where she's rude to the household staff. She's at once spoiled and lost in a world of new customs and expectations. However, she's encouraged to spend time "out of doors," and the fresh air does her good. Her appetite begins to improve, and so does her temperament. She really turns a corner when she meets Dickon, the younger brother of one of the housemaids. Dickon has an innate, almost magical, connection to the natural world, and he inspires in Mary a fascination with plants and animals. Meanwhile, Mary discovers there's another child living in the house: a boy whose foul disposition reminds her of her former self. Mary shares with her new friends the story she's heard about a secret walled garden that was locked 10 years ago, after a tragedy occurred there. When Mary finds the long-buried key to the garden, the children set about bringing it back to life, and they blossom right along with it.

 

 

so monstrously spoiled that no one can stand them and they can hardly stand themselves. With the help of a boy of the moors and some natural magic, they discover an abandoned garden and return it to abundance. As the garden grows the children grow -- into their own better selves.

Is it any good?

For generations, this wonderful novel has inspired young readers to appreciate simple earthly pleasures like skipping rope, planting seeds and watching plants grow, and coming home to a hot meal. At the same time, The Secret Garden appeals to children's imaginations with its mysteries of cries in the night and the secret walled garden. Readers will also be entertained by Mary and Colin's bratty behavior, and then their growing friendship.

Though some characters express outdated and/or racist attitudes, readers are meant to understand that unkindness and disrespect are wrong. It also makes the novel ripe for discussing colonialist prejudice. And the story intriguingly equates nurturing the neglected garden with restoring the health and vibrancy of the youngsters. This classic has been made into a few film versions, including a 2020 adaptation directed by Marc Munden.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the two cousins in The Secret Garden. Why are Mary and Colin so disagreeable at first? What helps them behave better?

  • What are some things that Mary and Colin have in common?

  • What would you grow in your own garden if you had one?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love magic and the power of imagination

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