Some stories are simply captivating, no matter how old you are when you first discover them. Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, is one of these.
This British classic is perhaps less well known in the United States, but it deserves to be cherished. It begins with Tom Long, a basically decent boy who is understandably disgruntled because his brother has contracted the measles just at the beginning of summer vacation. Tom is sent away to stay with his aunt and uncle, and is immediately frustrated with their drab existence in an apartment of a subdivided old manor house. The only thing of interest to him is a peculiar grandfather clock in the hall, which never chimes the right time. He soon discovers that time is a tricky concept, as he finds the house transformed each night when the clock strikes thirteen.
Tom’s malaise begins to heal as he explores the magnificent garden that appears behind the house during that special hour, and finds there an unexpected friend. He steals away every night to visit this magical place, only gradually becoming aware of its secrets. The adventure that follows is a feast for independent readers of any age.
Young bookworms – perhaps beginning around the age of eight – will intuitively understand Tom’s fascination with the garden, and will devour the rich descriptions. It is a lavish place to play, to explore, to run and climb and be free. The joy he shares in the company of his peculiar playmate Hatty, and the mixture of feelings he faces as he struggles to understand who she is and how they meet, is very recognizable. His desire to enjoy the endless summer of youth with her will resonate with school-age children who eagerly anticipate the last day of school.
But time keeps marching on, and Tom can’t hold on to the garden forever. Mature readers will further appreciate the depth of Tom’s sensibilities as he becomes aware of such intangibles as time, mortality, relationships, memory, dreams, growth, change, and the march of history. The author handles these carefully and the intensity of the plot is exciting without being too spooky. The ending is deeply satisfying.
Tom’s Midnight Garden was first published in 1958 and the story crosses several generations prior to that, but it doesn’t feel old or outdated. Its references to cars and light switches sound perfectly familiar to modern ears (though Americans may never know why apartments are called “flats” in England). Yet ultimately this book is a refreshing pitch for an unplugged childhood. Whatever time and circumstances normally lie between them, Tom and Hatty are happiest when they are climbing trees and whittling arrows together, and I suspect that by the end many of their readers – regardless of age – will want to do the same.
If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt