My students and I have had the best time sharing our latest favorite book: The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier.
"Ooooh, I had nightmares last night from reading it! Did you?"Half of our Mock Newbery book club is certain there's no way they're going to read it, but the other half can't wait to get their hands on it. If you like creepy stories full of atmosphere, suspense and mystery, you'll definitely want to find yourself a copy.
"Yes!! But I couldn't stop reading!"
"And then I heard the leaves rustling outside and I was sure he was out there!"
"Who? Who are you talking about?"
"The Night Gardener! You've got to read it, but only if you like getting scared!"
The Night GardenerMolly and her younger brother Kip are orphans fleeing the Irish famine, looking for work in England. They've been told there's a job waiting for them at the Windsor estate, but the local folk are nervous telling them that it's in the sourwoods. An old storyteller tells them, "They say the sourwoods changes folks... brings out something horrible in them." Little do Molly and Kip know just how much the sourwoods will change, tempt and test them.
by Jonathan Auxier
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Auxier does a masterful job at slowly building the suspense. Right away, Molly and Kip sense that something is not right at the Windsor home, but they welcome the warm bed, food and shelter. When they discover the power the tree has over everyone living there, they have been sucked into the terrible evil of the tree and the Night Gardener.
My students and I debated whether this was just a great, frightening story or one with depth and subtlety. While I agree that the climax was certainly heart-pounding, I suggested that Auxier asks readers to consider deeper themes than are apparent on the surface. What did they make when the old storyteller Hester Kettle (one of their favorite characters) told Molly,
"'You asked me for a story; now you call it a lie.' She folded her arms. 'So tell me, then: What marks the difference between the two?'" (p. 214)When Molly asserts that a lie hurts people and a story helps them, Hester counters by asking her exactly what a story helps them do? And so I ask my students: when the tree gives Molly its secret gift, the gift she wants more than anything else, is it a lie? Or is it a story that she desperately needs to believe in?
I adore that this is a story that can be read on so many levels. Auxier starts with a quote from Paradise Lost, writes in his afterward that he drew inspiration from Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Secret Garden. But I also see connections to the desperate greed and dire consequences of The Picture of Dorian Gray. I want to leave my students ruminating over this passage:
"'I think I figured it out.' (Molly) sniffed, looking up at the stars. 'Hester asked me what the difference between a story and a lie was. At the time, I told her that a story helps folks. 'Helps 'em do what?' she asked. Well, I think I know the answer. A story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens 'em. And a lie does the opposite. It helps you hide.'" (p. 278)And yes, just for the record, I definitely got nightmares reading this. I had to stop reading it at night and finish it early one Saturday morning. But it's a story that has stayed with me long after that quiet morning.
The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Abrams Books, but I've already purchased the first of many additional copies! If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.
©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books