Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden,” Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” and Richard Adams’ “Watership Down” were the books that I loved as a child, and I have read them over and over until I know them by heart, yet in some way they always surprise me with new revelations that make me love them even more.
Now that I am older, I wonder what it was, and is, about those particular works that drew me in. I can see the common themes that run through them now, and understand why a shy, anxiety prone child would find them so irresistible.
In “The Secret Garden,” I was able to watch as a child that I didn’t really care for made her way in a frightening new world. In this world, she found her own fortress of solitude, and because of this fortress, she was able to come out of her shell, work miracles in the lives of those around her, and, by the end of the book, worm her way into my heart.
In “The Hobbit,” I was stuck by the simplistic beauty of Bag’s End, and I was just as distressed as poor Bilbo when he found himself accosted by so many dinner guests. I didn’t want him to go on a journey, and leave the safety of the Shire; I wanted him to tell Gandalf to get lost and leave him alone! It wasn’t until they were through the Mirkwood that I began to enjoy the adventure. I cringed when Bilbo stole the Arkenstone, cheered for the hero Bard, and cried when Thorin died. Despite the fact that I learned to love the world beyond the Shire as I read the book, I still breathed a huge sigh of relief when my dear friend Bilbo finally made it back home.
“Watership Down” was, in some ways, more of an adult book than the Hobbit was. It dealt with politics, racism, sexism, dictatorship, and death, all within the world of a few beloved rabbits. I was young enough that I felt quite grown-up to be reading such a thick book, and if I was allowed I would devour it in a single day. I learned to see the world through the eyes of a rabbit as I read that book, learned about the bonds of friendship, how they can be tested, broken, and healed. I began to understand that if a life is well lived there is more call for celebration than bitter tears when it is over; and by the end I had a grasp of what an analogy was, long before they taught me about it in school.
These books all told tales of creatures that were pushed out of their comfort zone, that had to learn to deal with the complications that any relationship will cause, find a way to defeat their demons, and live their lives that they wanted to. They taught me that change is inevitable, and that my reaction to it will greatly influence how that change will shape my life.
When I have children, or even nieces and nephews, I will encourage them to read the thick books, and to find the inspiration and magic that each one contains. If you have never been fortunate enough to explore the worlds that Burnett, Tolkien, and Adams created, I heartily recommend them to you. They are sure to brighten your day.
(I’d love to hear about your favorite books, and also hear your thoughts on the ones I listed above, in the comments.)