Review: Miss Rumphius

The soft blooms of May remind me of one of my very favorite children’s stories, and it’s high time I shared it. If you have never happened upon Miss Rumphius, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney, you are in for a treat.

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 The story of the elderly Miss Rumphius is told by her great-niece. It begins when the aged aunt was a little girl named Alice, growing up with her grandparents somewhere in coastal New England around the turn of the last century. Inspired by her grandfather’s art and storytelling, Alice is determined to travel the world and only then come home to live beside her beloved ocean.

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.

These are some of my favorite lines in all of children’s literature. The affection between the generations, the size of a child’s dreams, and a mentor’s gentle guidance are simply and beautifully illustrated in both word and brushstroke. As Alice grows up quickly into Miss Rumphius and sets out on a life of travel, the pictures take us from the cozy fireside at home to the wonders of an old-fashioned library, and then from a greenhouse garden to the marvels of exotic lands. “And everywhere she made friends she would never forget.”

Satisfied with her adventures, middle-aged Miss Rumphius retires to a little cottage by the sea. But she remembers her long-ago promise to her grandfather, and wonders how she can fulfill it. The answer is accidental, but Miss Rumphius immediately sees the possibility and embraces her opportunity to make the world more beautiful. The resolution is a delight, and in the end she passes on the charge to the narrator: her great-niece, who is also named Alice.

Like all the best children’s books, this one is as much for the adults reading it as the children hearing it. It is a stellar read-aloud for all ages, but could also serve as a mindful gift for graduates, new parents or grandparents, even newlyweds. Everyone can benefit from this book’s lovely reminder that we must all do something to make the world more beautiful.

If you liked this book… read it again with the child you love. Life gets no better than this.

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Review: Tom’s Midnight Garden

Some stories are simply captivating, no matter how old you are when you first discover them. Tom’s Midnight Gardenby Philippa Pearce, is one of these.

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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

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