LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Is the Secret Garden appropriate for children?

on April 10, 2013 12:06pm

As a child I was never very good at reading the books my parents, or my school, wanted me to. While they plied me with classic children’s literature I would turn up my nose, happy instead to be left to my Magic Tree House books. Happy that I was reading, my parents would generally let me be but my school was sure that my classmates and I could benefit from reading ancient books that were supposedly classics and more suitable for me to read.  But how can you determine if a text is suitable for young audiences? Is it classifying a text based on its use of difficult vocabulary? Or perhaps some themes are better suited to certain ages. In my experience children will read whatever they want, and somehow books that we don’t deem “suitable” for them will always fall into their hands. Often the books we want the younger audience to read fall along the wayside, abandoned for books that children are actually interested in reading.

Ahhh childhood memories!

For instance, when I was a child I was given a copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It was a beautiful book and my mom was pleased to tell me that it was a classic, the seemingly golden standard for children’s literature. I avoided that book like the plague. It seemed boring to me; a girl finds a garden, big whoop! After reading the book now I regret not reading it when I was younger. The Secret Garden is full of wonderful imagery, from descriptions of the English moor to the depiction of a surly young girl learning to become a better person. I found myself smiling at references to other children’s literature books I’ve read; such as the new portrayal of a sweeter, less mischievous Peter Pan through the book’s Dickon. It is full of lessons that every child should be exposed to; lessons ranging from the importance of being polite to the people around you to knowing exercising will make you healthier. This is a story of growth, love and acceptance where 3 strange, misfit children become friends and through that friendship become normal, happy and healthy kids. If I had to choose an age for which this book would be most appropriate, based on the content matter and language, I would say any child from eight to 12 would enjoy it. Getting them to read it, however, would be a whole other story.

While The Secret Garden does have many great qualities, such as the ones I mentioned above, it is still over a hundred years old and in many ways not geared to be a children’s book, at least for modern American audiences. When I finally read the book I did enjoy it but I noticed a few off putting things, not in the least a few heavily racist conversations and an overall message that Britain is the exemplary place to raise children and grow up. There is a repeating message in The Secret Garden that England is superior to all other countries and that if you want your children to be happy you should raise them there and let them run wild on the moor. As this is an older British novel it may be hard for some of the lessons from the book to impact young readers. In my opinion it is simply out of date and in some ways incompatible with the American mindset. I do think that there is merit in this book though so if you have the option to recommend this book to a child you should.


One response to “Is the Secret Garden appropriate for children?

  1. cwood520 says:

    I think that you did a really thorough job here at weighing all of the components that go into determining at what age a child should read The Secret Garden, if at all. I tend to agree with your assertion that the term “a classic” is either going to have no effect on a child or off put them entirely, yet the fact remains that these children’s classics have earned this denotation for a reason and add value to the world of literature for a child – just like how, upon reading this novel as an adult, you wish you had read it as a child. However, on top of the many benefits these benchmark works have to offer, including the lessons they teach and the artistry in their imagery and storytelling, there are many downsides to these novels when held to a contemporary standard. How should we approach Mary throwing a fit over the idea that her servant assumed she was ‘black’? How do we enable children to benefit from the beautiful images of the British moors without also teaching our child reader that India is a cholera-plagued, hot, unhappy place? I think we need to evaluate the age of suggested readers mostly on the child’s capacity to understand historical context, to understand the evolution of equality and the lessons the past has taught us. I think that when reading classics that contain blatant racism or antiquated ideals, they can be used as a lesson themselves on top of the many lessons that characters like Mary, Collin, and Dickon impart, these texts can become a discussion for children. How practical this thought is in the busy worlds of parents, children, and teachers today is another battle entirely, but we truly don’t want to miss out on what these classics have to offer the children of today.

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