Reading The Secret Garden out loud to my kids has been one of my favorite experiences as a mom. The boys were 8 and 5, and Brontë was 2 when I read it out loud to them. It was slow going at the beginning, but as the story unfolded, the boys would often beg for me to read “just one more chapter.”
Two considerations: The story is mostly set in Yorkshire, England, and several characters speak with a Yorkshire accent. It might be difficult for some kids to read, but it makes sense when you sound it out. Also, Frances Hodgson Burnett was heavily influenced by Christian Science, and that is clear throughout this book, although it is mostly referenced as “Magic.” I found that it was easy enough to navigate through our family’s beliefs as we read it out loud.
My Mom-Meter gives this particular book an overall safety rating of 1 (Safe) for ages 8 and up.
Wikipedia has a good plot summary here.
Here are the potential moral issues parents might wish to talk with their kids about:
- Children call Mary “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary.”
- A boy tells Mary “You are to be sent home…and we are glad of it.”
- While others in the house are dying of cholera, Mary drinks a glass of wine and it makes her sleepy.
- Dr. Craven asks Colin if he took bromide salts (mild sedative).
- Ben Weatherstaff drinks beer at the end of the book.
- A man was called a “drunken brute” by his wife. He “got as drunk as a lord.”
- There are words used in this book that can be misunderstood by modern readers: Gay (as in merry, happy), Queer (as in strange, odd), Wench (as in little girl), Stupid (meaning boring)
- Mary calls her nurse terrible names. “‘Pig! Pig! Daughter of Pigs!’ she said, because to call a native a pig is the worst insult of all.” Mary calls Martha, her Yorkshire maid, a “daughter of pigs” once.
- Mary’s mom says “What a fool I was!”
- Ben Weatherstaff calls the robin a “cheeky little beggar.”
- Ben Weatherstaff says “Well, I’m danged!”
- Dr. Craven says “Good Lord!”
- Mary says some terrible things to Colin while he is having a temper tantrum, and it shocks him out of his fit. She says, “I hate you! Everybody hates you! I wish everyone would run out of the house and let you scream yourself to death! You will scream yourself to death in a minute, and I wish you would!”
- Ben says “Drat him!”
- Ben says “jackasses.”
- Dickon’s mother says “in Mercy’s name!”
- The wind is compared to an invisible giant twice.
- The roses were “fairy-like.”The Secret Garden was like being in a “fairy place” and “the country of a magic king and queen.” Mary liked “fairy-story books.” Mary thought that Dickon was like a “wood fairy.” A chair looks fit for a “fairy king.” “The seeds…grew as if fairies had tended them.” A mole’s hands are described as “elfish.”
- There are many references to snake charmers of India, and Colin thinks that Dickon is an “animal charmer.”
- Colin asks Mary “Are you a ghost?”
- Martha says Mary must have “bewitched” Colin.
- The gardeners appeared to be “witched away.”
- The word “Magic” is used many times throughout to refer to the power of nature or God. (influenced by Christian Science beliefs.) Please see Potential Discussion Points for more about this.
- Someone appears to be “spellbound.”
- Fakirs are mentioned (Hindu Dervishes).
- Colin has everyone sit in the Secret Garden to “practice Magic.” He says “it will be like sitting in a sort of temple.” Mary thinks he looks like “a sort of priest” and he speaks with a “High Priest tone.”
- Mary thinks Colin looks like a “strange boy spirit.”
- Mrs. Medlock calls Mary and Colin “a pair of young Satans.”
- Colin says “If I were [my mother’s] ghost – my father would be fond of me.”
- Mr. Craven is described as being “under the spell” of a thought.
- There are many references to the “natives” of India. Martha, the Yorkshire maid, is very curious about “the blacks.”
- Ben Weatherstaff calls the people of India “heathens.”
- The robin is “courting” a mate.
- Mary’s parents and several servants die of cholera. There is screaming and wailing.
- Mary beat and kicked a servant.
- Mary slapped her Ayah (her nurse in India).
- Mrs. Craven fell out of a tree and died.
- Mrs. Medlock threatens to box Mary’s ears.
- Colin is obsessed with the fear of becoming a hunchback and dying.
- There is a passing reference made that Dickon found a baby lamb lying by its dead mother.
- There are three references to “a good hiding,” meaning a spanking or whipping.
- Mary says that Dr. Craven is very patient with Colin: “If you had been his own boy and he had been a slapping sort of man…he would have slapped you.”
Potential Discussion Points:
- Mary’s mother did not want to have a child, and neglected Mary completely. Mr. Craven wishes that Colin had never been born. Potential Discussion Point: Both Mary’s mother and Mr. Craven acted very selfishly and did not think about their children at all. Is that how parents should treat their children? Why do you think that?
- The servants in India were treated like slaves. Potential Discussion Point: You might want to talk about the conditions of servants during British Colonialism.
- Mary was very disagreeable, but she didn’t know it. She thought that everyone else was disagreeable. Potential Discussion Point: Is it easier to see other people’s faults than your own? How to you discover your own faults?
- Mary says that she was “sour and cross” because she was lonely. She knows that no one likes her and realizes that she doesn’t like herself. Potential Discussion Point: Have you ever noticed how you act when you are lonely? Does acting “sour and cross” help you make friends if you are lonely? Do you like yourself when you act that way?
- Colin is extremely spoiled and selfish. Colin’s father acts very selfishly too. Potential Discussion Point: Do you think that sickness or being deformed is an excuse for selfishness?
- Mary and Colin disobey because no one had ever refused them. Colin says “Everyone is obliged to do what pleases me…It makes me ill to be angry.” Potential Discussion Point: Does it sound like Mary and Colin had a nice life without rules?
- Colin says “My mother died when I was born and it makes [my father] wretched to look at me…He almost hates me.” He also said “I don’t see why [my mother] died. Sometimes I hate her for doing so.” Potential Discussion Point: You might want to talk about grief with your kids, and how they would feel if one of their parents died.
- Mrs. Medlock said one time when Colin was very sick “He’ll die this time, sure enough, an’ best thing for him, an’ everybody.” Colin was convinced for most of his life that he was going to die. Potential Discussion Point: Word are very powerful. Colin believed the words Mrs. Medlock said, and he had a miserable life, expecting to die. Have you ever heard someone say something about you that you believed? What was it?
- Dickon’s mother says that Colin’s Magic is called different things in different places, but that it is the same as the thing that sets seeds swelling, the sun shining, and makes Colin well. She calls it the “Big Good Thing.” The final chapter says that thoughts are as powerful as electricity. Fear and crankiness keep you sick and fretful, but filling your mind with good thoughts bring health and beauty. Potential Discussion Point: You might want to talk with your kids about what your family believes about God.
From a 10 year old’s perspective: I liked the descriptions of the garden. They were very elaborate, but believable. It made you feel like you were there. It sounded magical and very cool.