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[Book Review] 'The Secret Garden on 81st Street' by Ivy Noelle Weir Illustrated by Amber Padilla

Review by A.M. Larks

Classic stories, including those for children, are classics because they capture some universal truth that resonates with theirs and future generations. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, still reaches readers because we are still dealing with proud and prejudice people and, in some families, marriage plots.

Stories are retold because something in their original form does not resonate with current readers, likely because it fails to reflect current values. Madeline Miller’s Circe is one such retelling. In Circe, Miller retells the Odyssey because in all Odysseus’ travels he forgot to include what women think. The female characters, including the Gods, were flat. The same is true for most of Greek mythology.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is both a classic story with elements that resonate with today’s readers and one that is in sore need of retelling. Enter: The Secret Garden on 81st Street by Ivy Noelle Weir and Amber Padilla.

In The Secret Garden on 81st Street, all the loveable characters reappear; Mary Lennox takes center stage at Uncle Archie’s house, run by the same old strict Mrs. Metlock, quirky Martha by her side talking as much as ever, and even cool Dickon is brought into the fold. Cousin Colin is still hidden away in one of the other rooms. Robin and Ben Weatherstaff make their appearances as well, but in this version, they are the bodega cat and friend of the family/bodega owner respectively.

What both Secret Gardens depict is the secret worlds that children create as part of their development, i.e., the exercise of autonomy. Said another way, the books reveal what goes on behind the “no adult allowed” signs. Both also showcase the healing aspect of nature through gardening. In that way, the retelling has captured the spirit of the original, which makes it not feel like a retelling at all.

Where the new version departs from the original is in its values, use of language, and length. The original was rife with prejudicial and racist comments that may have been indicative of the time but are now antiquated. What parent wants to explain to their child, right before bedtime, why Mary Lennox does not know the difference between Indian people and Black people? Or why the staff at Misselthwaite were surprised that Mary was white just because she was born in India? Or get into a lengthy discussion, with an eight-year-old, about England’s colonization during the Age of Discovery? These are all necessary and important conversations to have with children, but the choice of when and what age they should occur should be up to parents. For parents reading the original Secret Garden to a child today, these conversations would not be optional but required due to its content and expressed values.

The original, much to its detriment, also insists on capturing the Yorkshire dialect in painstaking, repetitive, accuracy. This made for a difficult read—even for me, a former English Literature major. I cannot envision a child picking this up for a light read and not giving up after chapter five, rather than continuing to laboriously read all 297 pages.

The genius of the retelling is, in its form, a graphic novel. This way, instead of long descriptions of the garden in its seasons and growth stages there are pictures that give the reader’s eyes and mind a break while continuing the story line. Padilla’s illustrations and use of color tell the story of the garden that goes from bare dirt in winter through to the glorious blooms and the yellows, reds, greens, and purples of summer.

Where the retelling outshines its predecessor is in the creation of round characters. Uncle Archie’s grief doesn’t magically disappear when he sees the garden, though it does lift, and he realizes the harm his neglect has caused. Colin’s illness has gone from “mostly in his head” to severe anxiety steaming from the traumatic death of his father, Uncle Archie’s husband Masahiro, which is acknowledged and dealt with by the staff and certified health care professionals that help Colin understand and process his illness. Mary becomes a more complete character by acknowledging that her hyper-independence and emotional numbing is as a result of the neglect she experienced in her household prior to the tragic death of her parents. Watching the characters deal with grief, anxiety, and trauma are learning moments for children and adults, making the retelling more than simply an antiquated children’s book with a couple of movie adaptions.

The Secret Garden on 81st Street is really the only version of this story that matters. It has the heart of the original while simultaneously improving its deficiencies. A new classic has emerged, and it just happens to be a graphic retelling.

AM Larks writes fiction, nonfiction, children's literature, and drama. Her writing has appeared in NiftyLit, Scoundrel Time, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Five on the Fifth, Charge Magazine, and the Zyzzyva and Ploughshares blogs. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current assistant managing editor and blog editor, as well as the former photography editor at Kelp Journal, a multimedia literary revue, and the former fiction editor at Please See Me literary magazine as well as the former blog editor of The Coachella Review. AM Larks earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and most recently a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University California Riverside Palm Desert's low residency program. She is a longtime patron of the arts and enjoys stories that capture the complexities of life on the page or screen.


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