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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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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 ...
- Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett
- Illustrator: Tasha Tudor
- Genre: Fantasy
- Topics: Friendship, Science and Nature
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books
- Publication date: January 1, 1911
- Number of pages: 368
- Available on: Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: September 25, 2020
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