callmemadam (callmemadam) wrote,

Revisiting classic children’s books: Return to the Secret Garden & Katy

Why? This is what I ask myself when modern authors take it upon themselves to give a modern twist to classic children’s novels. Would you re-write The House at Pooh Corner so that it ends with Christopher Robin giving away Pooh to a jumble sale? Or have Mole and Ratty eaten by predators and Badger gassed in his cosy home in the middle of the Wild Wood? Sequels need not be bad books. Hilary McKay’s Wishing for Tomorrow, a sequel to A Little Princess and Five Children on the Western Front, in which Kate Saunders takes the Psammead into the First World War are both rather good. These writers, as well as Holly Webb, author of Return to the Secret Garden, probably see their work as homage because they genuinely love the originals.

Return to the Secret Garden is set in 1939 and 1940. Modern writers just can’t keep away from World Wars, it seems. Emmie lives in the Craven (Ho!) home for orphans in London when the children are evacuated to the north of England. Evacuated to, of course, Misselthwaite Manor. Emmie is rather like Mary Lennox: thin, sallow, cross. She’s broken hearted because she has to leave behind a stray cat she’s adopted. At first she finds the vast house and the endless moor around it frightening after London. Then she discovers the gardens, one gardener in particular, a robin, and the garden, now tended and full of roses. She loves it and is allowed to help look after it. But the house has its mysteries. Why does Jack, the young son of the house, seem to hate the new inmates? Who cries in the night? Who wrote the diaries which she finds in a drawer in her room? By the end of the book she has learned the true identities of Mr and Mrs Craven and Miss and Mr Sowerby and linked them to the children of the past. There is one real tragedy and a nearly happy ending. The book is a good read but, I ask again, why write it? It’s true that the children of The Secret Garden are the right age to have lived through two World Wars but couldn’t we just leave them in the past?

Katy is another kettle of fish. Jacqueline Wilson has completely rewritten What Katy Did as a modern story. It’s very well done. Dr Carr is just as a modern Dr Carr might be, Izzie has been transformed from an aunt to a stepmother, Katy is as harum-scarum as her original. In this version, Katy and Clover are the children of Dr Carr’s first marriage and all the little ones from Elsie down are his and Izzie’s. Katy dislikes her stepmother because she still remembers her own mother. It’s easy to see Katy’s bad behaviour from the stepmother’s point of view and understand why Izzie sometimes loses her rag. Katy’s accident and subsequent treatment are very realistically described, so much so that I’d hesitate to give this book to a seven-year-old. Katy realises, furiously and self-pityingly, that she will be permanently disabled and has to learn to accept it.

It’s well known that Jacqueline Wilson loves such books of her childhood as Ballet Shoes and Little Women and often mentions them in her own books, hoping to encourage modern girls to read them, too. What I wonder though is whether she expects girls to read her Katy *instead of* What Katy Did? She says that, although she loves the book, ‘the message doesn’t feel appropriate nowadays.’ That’s certainly true about Katy’s accident. I know now, as I didn’t when I was seven, that a person with a spinal injury who lies flat on her back for two years is highly unlikely to walk again. Today’s disabled people, like Wilson’s Katy, are not patient invalids; they are whizzing about in their super wheelchairs challenging the world to stop them doing anything they want to, and it’s right that they do. This is hardly a ‘message’, though. It must be the whole School of Pain-suffering can be good for you-Cousin Helen is a saint which Wilson is referring to. In other words, she is removing from the story the nineteenth century morality (a Christian morality?), which makes it what it is. How can children understand that the past is another country if they’re not allowed to read about it?

Katy is enjoyable as a standalone modern book about disability, if you forget the original. Return to the Secret Garden I rather wish I hadn’t read. I like happy endings in children’s books and find it hard to forgive authors who destroy them. A good example is Monica Edwards, who wrote one of my favourite series: the Romney Marsh books featuring Tamzin, Rissa, Meryon and Roger. The last book about them, A Wind is Blowing, she quite mistakenly believed to be her best book. It contains a tragedy which almost destroys my pleasure in the rest of the series. Her own life was in turmoil when she wrote it; her husband had suffered a terrible, disabling accident. It’s easy to see how her distress got into her fiction. But for me, a tragedy is quite out of place in the happy Westling world. I hate the book so much that I sold the extremely rare hardback copy I had and I never want to read it again. Nor will I ever read Goodbye Mog or even Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m no Pollyanna; more of an Eeyore, I’m sorry to say. That doesn’t mean I won’t face up to anything sad or only want to read happy books. But fiction is fiction and surely we’re allowed suspension of disbelief? I want to believe that somewhere in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.; a large, not-very-clever cat will be dreaming; a girl will be riding her pony around Romney Marsh; a boy will cry that he’s going to live ‘for ever and ever and ever!’ And he did, until now.
Tags: a a milne, children's books, frances hodgson burnett, holly webb, jacqueline wilson, monica edwards, susan coolidge

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