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Return to the Secret Garden Hardcover – November 1, 2016
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"What a joy to return to the scene of a beloved children's classic...The garden may no longer be secret, but it still possesses magic. Return to the Secret Garden and enjoy the wonder of childhood and the magic of friendship in this sequel that is sure to warm the hearts of young readers everywhere" - Shelf Awareness
About the Author
Holly Webb is a bestselling author of over 80 books and was born and raised in southeast London. The Rose series stems from a childhood love of historical novels and the wish that animals really could talk. Before deciding to become a writer, she worked for five years as a children's fiction editor. She lives in Reading with her husband and three small children.
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It is the eve of World War II and the children of London are being evacuated to the countryside to protect them from the German bombs that everyone is expecting to be dropped on the city. The twenty children at the Craven Home for Orphaned Children are all bundled up and sent off on a train to stay at Misselthwaite, the ancestral home of the Craven family. While dusting her room, one of the orphans, Emmie, finds some old diaries in a drawer and begins to read them. She learns of another little girl who was an orphan sent to Misselthwaite years ago, and how she discovered a forgotten garden and brought it back to life. Finding the garden becomes a mission for Emmie, as does finding out who is making the crying sounds she hears at night. Is there a ghost in the manor? What she learns about gardens and friendship helps Emmie to give up some of her prickliness and may even let her feel at home for the first time in her life.
This book is an excellent homage to the original story. It stays true to the setting and characters and takes them years forward in time to mingle with a new generation. The way the two stories are intertwined through the diaries and the overlap of the characters makes it feel like a homecoming to readers of the first book and will entice newcomers to reach for the original once they finish Emmie's adventure.
Readers of historical fiction, particularly if they are interested in the period around WWII, or about the Blitz in particular, will find this a good choice. Details like gas masks, rationing, and bomb shelters reflect the experience of wartime London. The way in which the boys from the orphanage find some binoculars to watch the planes fly overhead and learn to identify the different types of aircraft is another realistic note.
Highly recommended for middle grades (and up).
This is lively, absorbing, and plausible sequel to the Burnett classic, which, unlike the sequel to A Little Princess which made excuses for all the bad characters as their just being unhappy, manages to capture a good deal of the appeal of its source. While the more modern vocabulary is not quite as rich as Burnett’s prose, the narrative does well describing the physical settings, and author does not shy away from realities, and the uncertainty of the evacuated children, the effect of the war on those at Misselthwaite, the atmosphere of a country at war (such as when a character talks to Emmie about the fate of animals in evacuated London), and best of all, creates plausible “futures” for the protagonists of the original novel, and creates parallels between this sequel and the original. There are also some wonderful, emotional scenes: a character’s belated reaction to bad news, Emmie’s realization upon meeting this person later that in her quest to find someplace to belong that she has made no allowances for the pain of others, a child hiding emotional pain behind a sarcastic front. If I have any complaint, it is that I would have loved more descriptions of the actual people: we know Emmie is thin and thinks herself “ugly,” that a certain character resembles a parent, that one character is short, that another wears a knitted cap and a little girl has a teddy bear. I would have liked to know more how these characters looked: the coloring, height, build of Arthur, Joey, and Ruby, for instance, and the matrons Miss Dearlove and Miss Rose. I scarcely know whether Emmie herself is brunette or blond. Burnett did such a good job of describing all her characters in a few succinct passages that I can see them clearly in my mind; I find I can’t do that with many of the characters in the sequel.
As an adult reading this book—the children reading it probably won’t care—I wish Ms. Webb had dipped into a few books of old British slang or even a couple of Enid Blyton novels to completely capture the speech and vocabulary of the era. There are some good strong references (“fish paste” sandwiches, candles as nightlights, blackout curtains, bread and butter for snacks), but at various times a modernism pops up that I find jarring: one character calls another “weird,” which is not a word a British child would have used in 1939, and another piece of dialog refers to someone having a “panic attack”; surely there were British slang words for that condition that would have been understandable to a modern child. (In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox uses “hysterics,” which would have been fine.) Also, people are always listening to “the radio” when the word at that time would have been “the wireless,” another word that could have been explained in short order.
Although the protagonist of this story is a girl and the book is a sequel to what many define as a “girl’s book” (I disagree) despite the fact that there are two strong male characters in it, Return to the Secret Garden should be enjoyable to all children, especially as a read-aloud book. with its combination of both girl and boy characters and no frilly “princess” nonsense. It could lead to discussions about the feelings of children who have parents in the armed forces, and also is a historical introduction to World War II and the children evacuated from London. Other children’s fiction to read on this subject include Carrie’s War, The War That Saved My Life, and Back Home.
A free copy of this book was supplied to me by NetGalley in return for an honest review.