Saturday, December 24, 2016

The JUV FIC Corner Presents "Tom's Midnight Garden"

Remember back when I used to do children's chapter book features called The JUV FIC Corner? Yeah, I barely do either - my last one was technically in June of 2013! I say "technically" because I think my overall reading habits have become a lot more juvenile in the past two years thanks to my job, so it's not such a rarity that I focus on children's lit anymore.

More to the point, I started doing those posts several years ago to feature some of my childhood favorites after re-reading them as an adult. It's always a lovely connection to check in with the beloved stories that were such monumental pieces of my reading history. It's difficult, as an adult, to recollect the kind of innocent wonder, intrigue, and impact that is an inherent part of childhood. Re-reading these favorite stories, I think, gives us back a piece of that feeling for just a moment.

I remember discovering Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce while lying in my grandparents' floor watching Reading Rainbow. After hearing a teaser, I just had to read it. And I must have, at the time, but that time is so long ago, probably 20 years ago at this point, that I can't actually remember much beyond that random day in front of their floor console television set. Something suddenly inspired me to find this book again, and luckily the Nashville Public Library had an original copy available in their annex.

In this lesser-known story (at least to modern American audiences), Tom is sent to spend the summer with his aunt and uncle after his brother contracts the measles. Now living in an upstairs apartment with no garden in which to run around and play, Tom immediately bemoans his lost summer of adventure with his brother Peter. One sleepless night, though, he hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike a thirteenth hour, and when he goes to investigate, Tom discovers the backdoor now opens into a huge, beautiful garden that definitely wasn't there before... Now, every night when the clock strikes thirteen, Tom escapes to this magical Victoria-era world where he befriends a girl named Hatty who becomes his steadfast companion and playmate.

It's so different from modern stories, yet so alike many classic stories in children's literature where fantasies are actualized. A boy steps outside when the clock strikes a mysterious hour and the whole world is different. The explanation doesn't matter, not yet at least; it's the discovery and exploration that cause the mind-racing, can't sleep kind of anticipation and excitement. This must be where I first fell in love with a time travel story, because the concept is so much a part of the best imaginings - a safe kind of adventure of discovery.

And like many childhood classics, the language is complex, never simplified for an adolescent audience. Pearce jumps a scene to different time, character, or perspective without any warning, in a way that feels apt to scene cuts on film, not narrative in a novel. It's surprising, and delightful, especially to an adult reader like myself, but I wonder about its 21st-century accessibility to young readers. (Most of my technology-dependent modern preteens, sadly, would probably not appreciate the simple imagination of this story.)

To me, though, it's wonderful storytelling and perfectly magical.

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