At the beginning of January, this book came out. Yes, the “Secret Garden” – and it is, indeed, The Secret Garden – but not as you know it. The brief was to retell, in 5,000 words, Frances Hodgson- Burnett’s original book, in a way that would be accessible to a child who might struggle with the classic text. “Yes,” I said, wondering if I could really do it. “Sounds like a great challenge”, which indeed it was. I started by re-reading it on kindle, which is always unkind to a manuscript – then I re-read my battered childhood copy:
And drank a lot of cups of tea and decided that I might have bitten off more than I could chew.
But I took some notes – and I took some more, and realised that if I wrote the skeleton of the story, like a synopsis, stripped off the parts that I couldn’t work in, and fleshed out the pieces that were essential, it was perfectly possible. It could even be fun. I’m not a methodical person, my thoughts aren’t very organized but I’m good at finding the essence of something and I decided that the essence of “sour faced Mary” was where I would start. It also seemed that Dickon, and Martha were essential, and of course, Colin.
I wrote something that I quite liked, that was about 8,000 words, and then began to pare and to cut and by the end it felt like thin sheep, shorn, racing over the pages where once something quite fluffy had stood.
Then came the illustrations, which were not at all as I imagined, but for all that, brought the story alive. Mary had a face, Colin too – and the house and moor, and garden.
When the finished book arrived, and I found myself reading it I decided that it had worked. That the Secret Garden, that precious book, part of the childhood of so many people, now had a new version that could be accessed by thousands of children who would not otherwise go near it. And when they’ve read the Secret Garden, they can move on to Wuthering Heights, rewritten by Emma Carroll , and Frankenstein by Beverly Birch or the Railway Children, or Little Women, or Anne of Green Gables, or Jane Eyre or… Masses of them, actually, masses of sacred texts made accessible for modern children.