Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden was described by the writer Marghanita Laski as ‘the most satisfying children’s book I know.’ I first read it when I was about 8 and I continued to read it throughout my childhood – and I still read it from time to time – always with pleasure. Interestingly, back in 1911, the book did not make much impression on the public (it wasn’t even mentioned in the author’s obituary in The Times in 1924) but gradually, over the years, it has acquired a host of devoted readers – including myself. It is now viewed as her masterpiece.

Frontispiece: Mary discovers the doorknob to the Secret Garden

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Dame Trot and her Comical Cats

About ten years ago, I bought a tattered old copy of a 19th century children’s book, 13 by 17 cms, called Dame Trot and her Comical Cats published in 1850 by Dean & Co of Threadneedle Street, London. It was a best seller and I thought it might be interesting to look into its history. Its story is a complicated – and convoluted – one.

The front cover picture shows an artist cat painting the portrait of the famous Dame Trot which stands on the easel

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Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Little Princess

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) was one of my favourite books as a child. The heroine, Sara Crewe, says early on: Whenever I play I make up stories and tell them to myself.’  I, too, told myself stories, and I knew at once that this would be my sort of book.

Sara was born in India and, as was usual then for health reasons, was sent to England for her education when she was seven. We first meet her with her much loved father in London, being taken to Miss Mitchin’s Select Academy for Young Ladies. She will be a parlour border, that is, she will stay there during the holidays. I, too, was at a Primary boarding school – so that was another thing we shared.

‘Oh, Papa!’ she cried, ‘There is Emily.’

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Witchcraft and the Rollright Stones

Visiting the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire in January with my daughter was a slightly spooky experience. Set in a field next to an ancient ridgeway with a wood nearby, these prehistoric stones still exude an air of power. The most important are ‘The King’s Men’, a Neolithic stone circle of over a hundred stones weather-worn into fantastical shapes (the exact number is unknown – legend has it that they are uncountable), dating from around 3000 BC.

Me, standing by one of the King’s Men stones

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Noel Streatfeild’s ‘Ballet Shoes’

Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes(1936) was one of my favourite books as a child and I suspect that many other girls have also loved it because, eighty-two years later, it is still in print. My own, very worn, copy has the original illustrations by Ruth Gervis (1894-1988) which I’ve always thought were just right.

Noel Streatfeild (1895-1986) Courtesy of Wikipedia

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‘A Girl of the Limberlost’ by Gene Stratton Porter

When I was fifteen, my mother gave me Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost for Christmas. It was a book she’d loved as a child and she thought I might like it, too. First published in 1909, it was republished sixty-one times, and, by the time the author died in 1924, more than 10 million copies of her various books had been sold. A Girl of the Limberlost was also turned into a Silent Film.

Gene Stratton Porter, courtesy of Wikipedia

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‘Little Women’ and me

Mr Little’s auction house, Barnard Castle, Co. Durham. I am about eight and I spot an interesting-looking orange book on an old table. It is Little Women. I pick it up and show it to my mother who says in surprise,  ‘Haven’t you read it?’ I shake my head. She takes the book and marches off to find Mr Little; two minutes and half-a-crown later, the book is mine.

My copy of ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott

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The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments

My copy of this famous book belonged to my grandfather and dates from the late 19th century. It’s based on a French translation by Antoine Galland, who heard it in oral form from a Middle Eastern story teller in Aleppo, sometime in the early 17th century. Galland’s translation appeared in 1704-8 and became an instant hit. James Mason, who edited this English version, wrote: ‘Few works have been translated into so many languages, or given such wide-spread delight.’

He felt that it was particularly well adapted ‘for putting into the hands of the young, to stimulate their growing faculties, to cultivate their imagination, and to assist, by healthy exercise, the expansion of their mental powers.’ We know that Charles Dickens loved the stories since childhood. As my grandfather’s copy was acquired when he was well into his forties, I would argue that it’s a wonderful book for all ages.

The Sultan Schahriah and Scheherazade (above) and her sister Dinarzade (below)

I do not know who is responsible for the illustrations; the frontispiece says only ‘With numerous illustrations.’

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The Stimulating World of Children’s Historical Novels

I am, amongst other things, the UK Children’s/YA book Review Editor for the Historical Novel Society Review. This means that I can keep in touch with what’s going on in the children’s historical novel world. Children, after all, are the adult readers of the future.

The February issue of the HNS Review has just come out and I’ve been sending reviews off to various publishers and asking them for suitable new books for the May HNS Review. I’ve also emailed those publishers who have not had books reviewed to see if they have anything suitable for the HNS May Review.

Historical Novel Society Review: February 2017

As usual, there is quite a variety on offer; excitement, tragedy, thought-provoking, laughter, love and friendship, it’s all there. And, of course, the history.

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The Rose Beetle

Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals was a favourite teenage book, and it introduced me to the rose beetle. Soon after he arrived in Corfu in 1935, Gerry met the rose beetle man, an itinerant pedlar wearing a floppy hat covered in feathers, and a patched, pocketed coat, bulging with knick-knacks for sale. Bamboo cages holding a variety of birds bounced on his back, and he held ‘a number of lengths of cotton, to each of which was tied an almond-size rose-beetle, glistening golden green in the sun, all of them flying round his hat.’


My much loved copy of ‘My Family and Other Animals’ by Gerald Durrell

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