Friday, December 17, 2010

Frances Hodgson Burnett, Revisited

As I was writing my post about The Making of a Marchioness I found myself wondering if young girls still read books by Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, A Little Princess). My friend Nora answered that question when she told me that her girls (approx. ages 14 and 16) love both of these books, so that was reassuring. My boys were not terribly keen on vintage books. One loved the Little Eddie stories by Carolyn Haywood, which first appeared in the 1940’s, and the other was briefly a fan of the Narnia books, but otherwise, not so much.

Just the other day, on the radio, I heard this story about what publishers are calling multi-platform books for adolescent readers. These are books that appear in print but which also have some kind of interactive online component to draw readers in. It made me think, how can books like those by Hodgson Burnett possibly compete? Filled with arcane references to life in India, they assume an understanding of British empire class distinctions, and are sprinkled with obscure dialect (does anyone remember trying to decipher Dickon’s language?). I remember being baffled by some aspects of the stories when I first read them in the 1970’s (what was an ayah?); it must be even harder now. It seems like these books would be hard going for a girl who could instead choose to read The 39 Clues.

I am not bemoaning the popularity of multi-platform books; they sound like a lot of fun. I’m just wondering, and am encouraged that there are girls who do still want to read the older stories.


Anonymous said...

I loved "The Secret Garden" as a girl. I recently listened to it on CD. I am not a big fan of audio books, I make an exception for children’s' literature. I was struck as an adult by the general treatment of servants in England and India. When I was a child, I read uncritically. If I didn't know a word or understand a concept, I just read on.

Shelley said...

The thing is, it should be part of being a reader--I may just think this because I write--to be baffled. Not in a frustrating way, but in an Alice down the rabbithole way. From Burnett to Joyce to Pynchon--it's kind of fun.


I agree with both comments. I often skipped over something on the assumption that it would be clear to me as I read. Or I tried to figure it out. Think of all those Britishisms: jumper for sweater, boot for car trunk. I felt absolutely brilliant as I figured them out.

I still think there is a loss in personal creativity and mental richness by being presented with images to go with everything. That is why the gardens are never really right when they show the transformed secret garden. It is the process not the product that makes the story.

I read sci-fi, fantasy, some romance (GEorgette Heyer), classic lit and biography mostly. I find much contemporary fiction kind of boring and annoying. Too much unnecessary product placement for one thing. Hate to think of the loss of some of those older book experiences for young people.

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