Classics are marvelous because they have withstood the test of time. Not every book can manage to resonate as the years go by, but those that do are often pretty darn amazing. Of course there are many beloved classic picture books, but my heart swells when J and I are able to enjoy a more grown-up classic together. One way that we have been able to do this is through outstanding adaptations like Great Illustrated Classics and Great Classics For Children, among others. We enjoyed a version of The Wizard of Oz many times this way before J moved on to the complete works as written by L. Frank Baum and recently, we fell in love with The Secret Garden.
A few weeks ago, J was in a local production of The Secret Garden, put on by the absolutely awesome Missoula Children’s Theater. I had seen the movie years ago, but honestly I couldn’t remember much of the story myself except that it was somewhat dark. I knew that J was going to be excited to be in a play, let alone a musical, but I also wanted her to be excited by the story. I was thrilled to find a great adaptation of the story at our library and the two of us dug right in during our bedtime reading.
The story is rather deep for a 6 year old to fully comprehend, but even on our first go round, she enjoyed the story immensely. The thing about these adaptations is that they understand their audience and abridge the stories in such a way that kids can understand the plot without getting weighed down by too many details. It is important to cut down a bit on the length to make the books more accessible to younger readers – 178 large print pages with illustrations versus nearly 300. The only downside to the version that we read was that Martha, Dickon and Ben spoke with many thou’s and thy’s, but by her second reading, J didn’t even mind those.
The story itself, in case you have forgotten as well, is that young Mary Lennox is orphaned in India when her parents die of Cholera. No one even realized that she survived the horrible sickness that spread through their home. She is sent to England to live with her reclusive uncle, Archibald Craven. Mary goes from being fully dependent on servants to do everything for her, including getting her dressed and keeping her entertained, to being expected to take care of herself and keep herself occupied without messing up the house. Her maid-servant, Martha, tells her of a garden that had once belonged to Mrs. Craven who had died ten years earlier. Mary strolls the grounds trying to find this hidden space. With the help of a robin, Mary discovers the garden. The garden is like her, abandoned and unloved, and she takes it upon herself to bring it back to life. She goes from being a sullen, sickly little girl to one teeming with life.
At the same time, she discovers another secret to the Craven household – sickly young Colin Craven. She hears his moans throughout the house and wonders what could be making those sounds. Colin suffers from some un-named ailment and everyone tells him that he might be humpbacked. He is confined to his bed and never gets to see the light of day or have any visitors. When Mary finds him, they are able to see similarities in each other and wind up enjoying each other’s company. Mary doesn’t put up with his princely ways and instead starts to tell him of the outside world encouraging him to leave his room. When he finally does, the fresh air and friendship help heal him the same way that they have healed Mary. Colin, Mary, Martha, and Dickon conspire to keep Colin’s improving health from the house staff until his father returns and can see it himself. All Colin really wants is the love of his father and his father has been convinced that Colin is sickly that he fears allowing himself to love and lose another. The garden and Mary manage to heal father and son.
The book is marvelous. Reading it definitely helped J for the play, even as simplified as the play was. Reading classics like these with multitudes of layers of meaning is important for growing minds. It’s great that J can read books with a voracious appetite, but fairies and princesses only get you so far. Even the awesome Magic Treehouse books she loves don’t manage to carry the meaty lessons these classics do. I will definitely be on the lookout for other great illustrated classics.
And just because I’m also a proud momma, here is a short clip from the performance. J is one of the plants in the secret garden and is the plant on the left. The garden appeared multiple times in the performance urging Mary to come take care of them.