LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Mary and her garden

The Secret Garden is a magical tale that deals with the healing powers inherent in having a good soul and a good attitude.  Mary’s transformation from a sour puss to a sweet young girl is just one example of the magic she experienced from the goodness of the people around her like Martha and Dickon.  Colin undergoes a similar experience when Mary and Dickon treat him with love and respect and share their secrets with him.

The novel revolves around the transformation of the two children as much as it revolves around the secret garden.  I believe the secret garden could act as a metaphor for Mary’s change into a good little girl.

When Mary finds the garden, she is already starting to become a nicer child.  Her fascination with the robin and her conversations with Ben Weatherstaff have softened a very small part of her.  When she finds the garden, it is overrun with weeds and dead branches, but at the same time, she sees the beauty that’s hiding under all of that and imagines the way it could be if someone would just take the time to take care of it.

As Mary weeds the garden, color comes to her face and she looks more like a natural child instead of her cold, frigid self.  She pulls out the grass and gives the sprouts space to breathe, much as the fresh air from the moor gives Mary more room to breathe and the fresh air does her good.

As Dickon enters the situation, the garden begins to come to life just as Mary begins to become a real child with a real friend her own age.  She becomes enraptured by Dickon and Dickon is obsessed with nature, content to prune it and make it come alive, just as Mary comes alive around him.

Spring comes and the garden blooms completely, but not before Mary has her ultimate transformation and that comes at the hands of Colin.  Mary’s love for him changes her into a good person with a good soul.  Her sympathy for him and her concern for his illness and her faith that he can become strong and healthy all coalesce to make her become a sweet young girl.  Understanding the ways that Colin is selfish and spoiled helps cure her of her own spoiled nature.  When the garden comes into full bloom, Mary, too, comes into herself completely and becomes the sweet little girl she always could’ve been, and the girl the garden helped her to become.

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The Secret Garden: Appropriate for Children Today?

The Secret Garden is a novel that focuses on the differences between India and England, expressing that children need to be raised in a good environment in order to become well-behaved children and experience a childhood. It is a book that focuses on the beauty and healing properties of the natural world, but is it appropriate for children to be reading, today?


On one hand, The Secret Garden encourages the reader to step outside, enjoy the fresh air, and explore the beauty of one’s garden. It entices the reader to watch life blossom before one’s eyes, and educates the reader on the basics of gardening. Considering how technology has given children plenty of entertainment and distraction, in doors, I feel that this book would be worth reading to a child, in hopes of helping that child step outside and explore the possibilities of imagination and free play. While the book fails to teach a child how to imagine a new world within one’s head, considering Mary does not possess such faculties, it does show a child that the mere act of skipping rope can be worth pursuing. As a result, perhaps children of today should be reading this, due to the fact that it exposes them to a world that they may not have previously thought was worth venturing into.
On the other hand, The Secret Garden expresses several negative thoughts about the vibrant and beautiful culture and country of India, which increases the potential for racism and closed mindedness about the exotic world. The Secret Garden expresses that India is a sandy country, that is too hot for activities, and is full of ‘blacks’ who are expected to serve Europeans. Considering how diverse the population of America is, today, such messages may be ill-received by families of foreign nationality, and may only lead to more reasons for bullying between Caucasians and other ethnicities. It is possible that, should the child pick up on such propaganda within the book, a caucasian child might believe that individuals of a darker skin type are meant to treat him or her as a superior, and may resulting treat those children as inferior. Such messages pave the way for segregation and discrimination, so one must wonder if it is worth the risk.
Is it better to read the book, in order to encourage children to explore the great outdoors, or should this book be saved for when children are old enough to understand that the messages in the book about class and race are from an earlier era?

 

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What is a Classic?

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An individual may ask what characteristics make up a “classic” when it comes to literature and the usual response would be the age of the book. A classic can be a novel that has been around for several decades and is still being read by both children and adults today. In fact, a classic tale can become immortalized as it is passed down through generations of readers as long as people are willing to keep the books alive when reading them to their children. Considering classic literature is very outdated, there are several occasions when the values in the stories are quite different from contemporary ones. Moreover, the language and writing style become a lot more difficult to comprehend over time, but fortunately some classics have been recreated in modern English, so that readers can understand according to how they speak today. There are also different ways the characters behave and talk in society. In other words, a classic can serve as representation of the time period it was written. However, despite the many changes throughout time, a classic always maintains consistent morals and a unique story for readers of any age and time period to enjoy for an eternity.

A book can be deemed a “classic” merely by how memorable it is to society. Time does not necessarily limit the “classic” label, but it does strengthen the credibility when someone picks up a book that is several years old. One could probably argue that it is the book’s popularity and the large sum of people who know of its existence and contents in the story that immediately makes the book a classic. Perhaps it is a little pretentious to consider a book a classic after being out for not even a decade, but it is really up to time to decide if a book should be considered a classic. If future generations are able to remember books of today then these contemporary books should indeed be considered classics, but we have to let time decide the future label of a book. Both adult and children’s books can both be evaluated equally in terms of being classified as classics; both adult and children’s literature have their fair share of renowned stories and, in most cases, are books that are kept alive by the educational system which requires these classics to be read.

Now how exactly would Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, The Secret Garden, be considered a classic to contemporary readers? The first and most important thing in a classic novel is the universal appeal. Burnett uses the garden motif as an expression of life and its beauty. Moreover, the garden is a place where healing and magic occurs, a location where things are able to be at peace and grow. As readers, we can often relate to flawed characters like Mary Lennox and Collin who eventually overcome their problems and develop into strong and memorable characters. The lesson in this novel seems to lean to being positive and looking on the bright side which is often accentuated by the beauty in the garden. Mary begins as a spoiled and immature character, but by meeting Collin she becomes aware of her own flaws which are practically mirrored through her cousin. Mary learns to take responsibility and Collin, who was initially wheelchair bound, is soon able to walk. The characters play an important role in making the story survive for multiple generations, the morals and lessons taught through these characters can be relatable to many readers no matter what time period they live in.

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English Moors and Magic Gardens: The Importance of Place in The Secret Garden

sg1Two of the books we have read recently, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Five Children and It, are both lesser-known works today, especially when compared to some of the other novels we have read this semester. While the character of Peter Pan is well known, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was overshadowed by the more popular Peter and Wendy. While Five Children and It has endured as a classic in England, it is recognized far less in the U.S. While there are certainly several reasons for the lower status of both of these books, one reason that has been suggested by several people in the class is the specificity of the place or the culture in which the books are set. Peter Pan takes place in Kensington Gardens, a distinct landmark that would have been unfamiliar to American readers. Likewise, Five Children and It is grounded in British country life and a culture that may have seemed strange to American children.

Upon learning from the group presentation on Tuesday that The Secret Garden faded in popularity after its initial publication, I immediately wondered if the same problem of location could be at fault in this case. After all, the book seems to be tied closely to its English setting. Most significant are the frequent descriptions of the remarkable landscape of the moor. The moor is so present in the story that reviewer R. A. Whay remarked that “it might be the moor, the Yorkshire moor…that is to be accepted as the protagonist” (Whay 269). American readers were likely not familiar with this landscape or the “cool and warm and sweet” (Burnett 108) wind off of the moor that has such a powerful effect on Mary and Colin.

sg2After reading Anne Lundin’s essay on the reception of the book, however, it does not seem that the specific setting of the story had any significant effect on its popularity or lack thereof. This led me to wonder why the specificity of the location did not have the negative effect on The Secret Garden that it had on other books, and I think that the answer lies in the garden itself. The secret garden is a hidden, magical sort of place that is disconnected from the rest of the gardens and from Misselthwaite Manor. The garden is not tied to a specific time or place, and when Mary, Dickon, and Colin are in the garden it is as if they have left the outside world and entered an entirely separate place. The garden exists as an equivalent to Wonderland or Neverland, a mystical world into which all readers can imagine themselves. The “mythic imagery of a restored garden, of something submerged awaiting discovery” (Lundin 287) can appeal to everyone, thus outweighing any negative effect that the specific location may have.

All quotes from:
Burnett, Frances H, and Gretchen Gerzina. The Secret Garden: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Burnett in the Press, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. Print.

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Disability and The Secret Garden

A motif prevalent in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is Mary and Colin’s disabilities in relation to their happiness. The novel subtly attributes Mary’s childhood sickness to her time in India saying, “her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.” India, clearly, is no place for an English child, though the text suggests that is India’s fault and not the colonial hold Britain has over the country. Colin has literally been stuck in a room for years so he is obviously always concerned with death and dying. Only when they discover the garden and can immerse themselves in the greatness of the nature of England can they really become happy again. One example is the classic children’s book Heidi by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. From what I remember about the character Clara is that she is spoiled and isolated and can only regain her ability to walk after Heidi befriends her and brightens up her life.

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This premise of disability in children’s literature is almost irresponsible because it assumes the notion that one can get over their disability based on sheer will and temperament. It also portrays to children that people with disabilities are irritating and reinforce the stigma against them. Characters with physical abnormalities are always depicted as villainous or crotchety and posed as characters the children should not want to emulate. Obviously the context of the time would explain why people with disabilities would be portrayed as such – they are useless in terms of working or getting married – something held to a high esteem. Characters like these would probably never be portrayed like this nowadays because these groups would feel incredibly marginalized.

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The Secret Garden: A Tale of Healing

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is a children’s classic that has charmed both children and adults alike since the date of its publishing in 1909. Throughout the work, Burnett illustrates the link between location and health or well being. Mary Lennox, the novel’s protagonist, travels from the far away land of India where her parents perished due to a cholera outbreak. In the novel’s beginnings, taking place in India, it is noted that Mary is quite an ugly child with her skin having an almost yellow tint and thin hair. It is also noted that she possesses a poor demeanor. She is waited on hand and foot while in India due to distinct class differences between herself and her servants, therefore, she never quite received any discipline. With her parents’ constant absence from her life, in addition to their deaths, she experiences an atmosphere of trauma, neglect, and bitterness in India. Throughout the work, India is associated with a negative state of being

During her stay in England, her servant Martha and grounds keeper Ben treat Mary kindly. Through these figures, Mary is disciplined and discovers the transforming abilities of Mother Nature. In her isolation, for she was unaware of any other children at the manor, she learns about plants and gardens, and much like the plants she grows in her secret garden, she grows into a more pleasant individual with a kind heart. She realizes the healing nature of her outdoor activities, and soon encourages her sickly cousin Colin, who is bedridden and bitter, to venture outside just to see the plants growing and the birds singing. In their encounters with Dickon, Martha’s younger brother who is gifted with a closeness to nature, Colin and Mary learn how to be children free from bitterness and full of wonder. Throughout the work, England, especially its moors, are associated with a hearty well being. Though Colin has been living in England all his life, he is deprived of the outdoors and therefore, deprived of a normal and healthy childhood. Through Mary, he is healed and soon stands on his own two feet after being sentenced to a wheelchair for many years.

Mary, Colin, and Dickon in the Secret Garden.

Mary, Colin, and Dickon in the Secret Garden.

The Secret Garden is a story of healing, with both the protagonist Mary and her cousin Colin experiencing a great change due to an exposure to fresh air and nature. Throughout the work, location is key to the characters’ health, with India and the indoors being associated with sickness and England as encouraging to one’s health and well being. This dichotomy is clearly seen in Mary Lennox’s 180 degree transformation from yellow, thin, and sour to pink, fat, and jolly.

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“The Secret Garden” Presentation Sources

Bixler, Phyllis. “Chapter 4: Fairy Stories for Children and Adults (1900-1924).” Frances Hodgson Burnett. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Twayne’s English Authors Series 373. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 Apr. 2013. <http://go.galegroup.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CH1472000802&v=2.1&u=gain40375&it=r&p=LitRC&sw=w>.

 

Gerzina, Gretchen. Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of the Secret Garden. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Print.

 

Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook. “Not Just For Children: The Life and Legacy of Frances Hodgson Burnett.” In The Garden: Essays in Honor of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Ed. Angelica Shirley Carpenter. Toronto: Scarecrow, 2006. 1-16. Web. 7 Apr. 2013. <http://chapters.scarecrowpress.com/08/108/0810852888ch1.pdf>.

 

Gohlke, Madelon S. “Re-Reading the Secret Garden.” College English 41.8 (1980): 894-902. Web. 8 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/376057>.

 

Lundin, Anne. “The Critical and Commercial Reception of The Secret Garden (1911 – 2004).The Secret Garden. Ed. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2006. 277-87. Print. Norton Critical Edition.

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Introducing Brittany Fining

Hello, class! My name is Brittany Fining.

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          I am a fourth year student majoring in English with minors in Education and Family, Youth, and Community Sciences. My hobbies include reading, running, and spending time with my family and sorority sisters. I am originally from Brooklyn, New York, but lived in New Jersey for most of my childhood before moving to Punta Gorda, Florida just before high school. Upon graduation, I will be moving back to New York City to teach as a Teach for America 2013 Corps member. I could not be  more excited to move back to my favorite city and start impacting students’ lives!

I am really looking forward to taking this course. Since my plan for the past two years has been to teach after I graduate, I have found that taking classes on children’s and adolescent literature and culture have seemed not only most relevant to me, but have also interested me the most. This will be my fifth class offered by Center for Children’s Literature and Culture. This semester, I am looking forward to revisiting many of my favorite stories from my childhood, such as The Wizard of Oz and The Secret Garden, and analyzing them from a new, scholarly perspective.

I have loved reading since I was a small child. My favorite thing about books is that no matter how many times you may read them, they always affect you differently depending on where you are in life at the time that you are reading them. My favorite book from my childhood is The Giving Tree, a picture book written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein. To me, children’s literature refers to books that are primarily targeted toward children. I have learned, though, that often “children’s” books are much more structurally and thematically complex than they seem when taken at face value. To me, the term “Golden Age” refers to the time in our culture when the idea of children was romanticized, and children were treasured. It’s end marked a turning point not only in our literary culture, but our general social culture, in reference to how children were regarded.

I am looking forward to further exploring these texts and  topics throughout this course and getting to know you all better!

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