The Secret of Nightingale Wood

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
The Secret of Nightingale Wood Book Poster Image
Suspenseful WWI family drama has feel of a classic.

Parents say

age 8+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Titles of many classic books, for instance Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, and lots more. Also names of authors Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens. Some info about World War I battles, casualties, etc. Some historical details from 1919 (e.g., people used both motorcars and carts and horses, girls wore pinafores, types of treatments for mental illness, types of toys kids played with). Introduction to elevated vocabulary in context, for instance, "improbable" and "wraith."

Positive Messages

With grief, the only way out is through. Overly medicating for emotional pain is "just one prison within another." The books we read and stories we tell ourselves can help make sense of life. Though some adults may act against our interests, others will lend a helping hand. Even when you're afraid, you can still try to act and change unhappy circumstances.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Henry's a spunky 12-year-old girl. Though she misses her brother and is in the throes of grief herself, she manages to take concrete action to pull her family back together. Even though she feels fear, she pushes herself to act. She defies adult authority when she knows it's wrong and hurting people. She's kind and open to others who are in pain.

Violence & Scariness

Doctor pushes strong prescription drugs on Henry and her mom, against their will. Doctor plots to put mom in an asylum where other doctors will experiment on her, possibly with surgery. Henry's brother died in a fire that Henry survived.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Secret of Nightingale Wood is a debut novel by Lucy Strange, a British author with a flare for both page-turning suspense and the beautifully turned phrase. The spunky and likable protagonist, Henry, is a 12-year-old girl. Set near the seaside in England just a year after World War I, the book follows a family that's suffered an acute loss, and the mom's spiraling into a breakdown. A cruel and corrupt doctor prescribes a strong barbiturate to sedate the mom, as well as morphine for Henry, so parents might springboard into discussions about prescription drug abuse. Throughout the book, Strange weaves in names of classic children's books, positioning this book in that company, and encouraging a love of classic literature.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byRDean14 November 14, 2017

Beautifully written historical fiction

I could not put this book down. It is a beautiful book that allows parents and kids to discuss depression and other mental illnesses (such as PTSD) and how fami... Continue reading
Adult Written byCleggie August 10, 2018

Fantastic read!!!!

I was very fortunate to meet Lucy at the University of Sheffield in July this year and was given a signed copy of the book. This was my holiday read and I strug... Continue reading

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What's the story?

In THE SECRET OF NIGHTINGALE WOOD, Henry (short for Henrietta) and her mom, dad, and baby sister move from London to a new house in the country. There's been a tragedy in London, and we get inklings that Henry's older brother, Robert, has died. Henry's dad leaves the family to work in Italy, leaving his distraught wife in the care of a new doctor, who heavily sedates her. Will Henry’s mom heal? Will the doctor move her to the frightening asylum? Though left alone to navigate her own emotional pain, Henry knows she also has to act to save her family.

Is it any good?

With many of the earmarks of a classic, this book set in 1919 just after World War I is that rare bird: a literary page-turner. The Secret of Nightingale Wood hooks us with suspense -- who's the witch in the woods, what happened to Henry's brother Robert? -- while wowing us with its exquisitely crafted language. Henry "walked into the dark jaws of the forest," where she sees "a wraith of smoke," and where "the sunlit leaves trembled with secrets." This family has secrets, as does the house they move into, and the woods surrounding it, and readers are held rapt as author Lucy Strange uncovers them bit by bit.

Strange weaves in references to classic books, seamlessly connecting them to the plot without losing momentum. And because the book's set in 1919, it has some charming period details (Lucy wears pinafores), making it feel like one of the classics itself. The stakes are high as Henry fights the doctor to keep her mom and baby sister, though the doctor can sometimes seem a bit villain-like. And the drugs he prescribes add an extra edge, given the current opioid crisis in the United States. The themes of grief and mental instability can feel dark for the age group, but as Henry takes brave steps to save herself and her family, we're absorbed in the drama and moved by her plight.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the historical setting in The Secret of Nightingale Wood. What details in the story set it in 1919? What details set it in England? Can you relate to the story today?

  • Why does Henry feel she has to save her mom and sister? What would you do if a doctor wanted to send your parent away? 

  • Why did Henry's mom have a breakdown? Is the treatment of mental illness different today? What sorts of treatments do you know about? What kind of treatments sound like good ones to you, and why?

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