Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

65. Tom's Midnight Garden
by Philippa Pearce
juvenile fiction, 1958
second reading
second book for R.I.P. VI challenge
finished, 10/7/11

After wimping out on a couple books I thought I'd read for the RIP VI challenge,

I got the brilliant idea that maybe a children's book would be a better choice for me. I don't mean young adult, but that glorious genre for young readers which lies between picture books and teen books, referred to as juvenile fiction. The ages listed on these books are either 9-12 or 10-14. That's just about right for my comfort level with ghostly, creepy sorts of stories.

I went to the upstairs bookshelves where I keep the books from Tom's and my childhood, and Margaret's and Michael's childhood.

My eye fell upon Tom's Midnight Garden, a book I've been meaning to read again, having read it years and years ago to my kids. And I thought this would be just the ticket! I really love this story.

The book begins with 12 year old Tom Long having to leave home because his brother Peter has come down with the measles. He goes to stay with his aunt and uncle in another town so that his mother may devote her time to her sick son. Tom also must be in quarantine for a while so that he won't give the illness to anyone else.

Tom is greatly distressed because he and Peter had looked forward to playing in their back garden during the summer holidays. They had plans to build a tree house.

When he arrives at Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen's house, he sees:

a big house now converted into flats. The house was crowded round with newer, smaller houses that beat up to its very confines in a broken sea of bay-windows and gable-ends and pinnacles. It was the only big house among them: oblong, plain, grave.
Aunt Gwen is a cook of 'large, rich meals,' and they, combined with no exercise other than jigsaw puzzles give Tom some uncomfortable sleepless nights where the striking of the grandfather clock in the main hallway is his only companion. After getting up and prowling around and being discovered, his Uncle Alan makes him promise to stay in bed for ten hours.

The old clock never strikes the correct hour, and when Tom hears thirteen he is startled, and 'uneasy in the knowledge that this happening made some difference to him; he could feel that in his bones.'
The stillness had become an expectant one; the house seemed to hold its breath; the darkness pressed up to him, pressing him with a question: Come on, Tom, the clock has struck thirteen - what are you going to do about it?
With a child's reasoning, he decides that there is now an extra hour in the day, and that he can stay in bed for the promised ten hours, and still have an hour to himself to get out of bed and explore. Because he is such an honorable and obedient child he goes downstairs to make sure the clock really says thirteen, allowing him this freedom. He feels for the light switch, and can't find it. He decides he can use the moonlight, but it is dim and he thinks if he opens the back door more light will beam through so he can see the clock face. He has been told this door leads only to a paved back yard with rubbish bins. But… what he sees is a big lawn and flowerbeds and trees and a greenhouse. His immediate response is that his aunt and uncle have lied to him. But then he begins to see and experience strange things. A maid dressed in old-fashioned clothes cannot see or hear him. He looks back into the hall from where he came and sees it completely transformed from a central hall in an apartment building to a grand hall in a family house.

And so, our young hero's adventures begin. The reader moves right along with him night after night, completely believing in all that happens. We may wonder a bit more than Tom does, but we still don't question the occurrences. We meet a girl around Tom's age, Hatty, who can see and hear him. She accepts him in his new-to-her pajamas, as he accepts her and the garden.

In an afterward to my Dell Yearling publication of Tom's Midnight Garden, the children's book author, Zilpha Keatley Snyder explains just why the reader shares Tom's adventures without doubt or disbelief. She tells how she loved fantasy stories as a child, but that some let her down because they didn't follow her 'rules.'
The first rule was NO NONSENSE.
The second was NO TREACHERY.
NO NONSENSE meant that the magical and wondrous should be built on a foundation of lots of convincingly realistic details, and that magical events or powers had to be limited in understandable ways.
RULE TWO… What I really hated was a fantasy in which the magic was all TREACHEROUSLY taken away at the very end, as when the ghost turns out to be somebody playing tricks, or worst of all, a whole magic adventure turns out to be a dream.
Now, it's perfectly obvious that Tom's Midnight Garden follows both of these rules to perfection. One is completely caught up in Tom's everyday life when the first little hints of strangeness, the grandfather clock and the old house itself, begin the subtle preparations for magic. And by the time of the first visit to the midnight garden, one is ready to think, of course. That's exactly what had to happen.
I give you this extended report of the beginning of the book, and then Zilpha Keatley Snyder's words to show that you too may believe. It isn't even a matter of suspending belief. One simply believes. And what a story we fall into. Each night that Tom visits something or someone is a bit different. What is just a night to him is often much longer to Hatty. Is he a ghost or is she? What is happening to time? These are the big questions, but there is also unquestioning delight in the fun these two lonely young people share. They both know that their circumstance is not usual, but they can forget it for a while in their quest for adventure.

Philippa Pearce was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Tom's Midnight Garden. It is worth scrolling down that page to see all the other winners.

I love these photographs of her.

There are two obituaries of Philippa Pearce here and here. There was a celebration of the 50th anniversary edition of this book here.

And you may find another review of Tom's Midnight Garden here.

I own another book by Philippa Pearce which I plan to read again next year called Minnow On The Say, and I hope to get more of her work. She was a wonderful writer.


  1. I enjoyed this post very much. You know how I love talking about nostalgic reads from childhood. I think you should do a post about that bookcase the books it holds. I couldn't see the titles of all of them!! LOL

  2. Oh, thank you Kay. Wow, I could spend a year posting on those books. :<) I actually have a few in mind that I plan to read again next year.

  3. Nan,
    Excited to hear about this English author...the book sounds like very good. I read about her and she seemed a very interesting person.
    The Battle of Bubble And Squeak is one of her books...I would like to read that one too! I love the title of it. As a vegetarian, you must have had Bubble and Squeak in your life, right?

  4. Nope, never had it Kay! Not so fond of boiled cabbage, the taste or smell!

  5. I have a few of her books on my middle school shelves...should look into this one!!

  6. It's a book that stays in the memory isn't it Nan...lovely

  7. Oh! I want to sit in front of that shelf and explore its contents! Children's books can be such treasures; my childhood, what I thought and felt, how I played and saw the world around me was greatly influenced by the books I was reading back then. One of my favourite authors was (and still is) Edith Nesbit. Have you ever read anything from her? She, too, follows those rules of magic.

  8. I first heard of this book when my son was a child and the book was dramatized by the BBC. I've never read it but was entranced by the TV version. I'd love to read this.

    This is an excellent choice for the RIP challenge. I wish I'd thought of it too. I've been reading classics such as Dracula and am now in the middle of The Turn of the Screw. Neither of these are as scary as I thought they would be. But neither are they magical. I feel I need some magic in my life right now, so I'm going to see if I can get hold of a copy.

  9. I read The Minnow on the Say last year, it's absolutely delightful, but the book I loved most by Pearce is A Dog So Small, an enchanting celebration of imagination (now I need to read it again, too).

    Bubble and squeak is delicious, I was a cabbage hater most of my life but it's one of those leftover dishes which always manages to be a treat - best made with spring or savoy cabbage, I think, and served with fried eggs. The book was sweet, too.

    Nan, I have to thank you for recommending Margaret Drabble's The Pattern in the Carpet - I got it out of the library and am enjoying it so much it's hard to put it down. The combination of reminiscence and her research into not just puzzles but the whole subject of games, and childhood, is wonderful. I'm going to get it for my aunt for Christmas - or possibly even both aunts!

  10. One of my favorites! I didn't discover it until I was a grown up. But would I have loved the ending as much as I do now? Delighted to hear about her other books and have some references. Thank you! Susan E

  11. I had never heard of this author. Thanks for enlightening me! Have a great day Nan!

  12. This was one of my favorites among my children's books. Another great favorite was The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatly Snyder!

  13. Nan- Have you ever run across the Edward Eager books? I think one was called "Once Upon a Saturday".How I loved them when I was little. I think another was called "Half Magic".

  14. Fun title, must have a special resonance for you. Does your Tom garden at midnight, I wonder?

  15. Nice post! I don't remember hearing about Pearce before. I'll have to check her out.

  16. Staci, if you come back, I'd love to know the titles.

    Val, yes it is. I guess a lot of us kind of dream of that sort of thing being able to happen.

    Librarian, this was so nice to read. I plan to (re)read more from those shelves next year. I have read The Railway Children by Nesbit, and I own a few I haven't read.

    Margaret, I'd love to have seen the television version. I think I read a little of Turn of the Screw years ago and was scared. If you can get a copy of this book, I know you would love it. Believable magic. Wonderful, wonderful book.

    Geranium Cat, I did love Minnow on the Say as well, and want to read it again. Thank you for the recommendations of some other PP books. And I am so, so happy about the Drabble book. That's just wonderful.

    Susan, it is a perfectly wonderful ending isn't it. Utterly believable, yet magical.

    Sherri, she's a great writer.

    Jenclair, I haven't read anything by her, and hope to.

    Betsy, yes! I really liked Half Magic- just read it again a couple years ago. I should look into more of his books, and I thank you for the reminder.

    Margaret, if you haven't come across this book, you would love it.

    Beth, she is quite wonderful.

  17. I, too, enjoyed this book review very much. Almost as much as I loved perusing the shelves in that photos of the bookcase. :) I remember "Five on a Hike." Wonder if I still have it somewhere...

  18. Les, thank you. I think I'm going to reread some of those books and report on them next year. Many, many are excellent reads for children and adults, like this one.

  19. I LOVE Tom's Midnight Garden. I read it to my children when they were young, and I still remember the magic. What is it about British writers, especially those who write fantasy? Why are they so good?

  20. Lgraves, I don't know what it is or why it is but I believe it is true. And not just for fantasy.

  21. I missed this book as a kid somehow, and I think I would have loved it. Particularly because Zilpha Keatley Snyder's rules for fantasy are totally the rules I still watch for in the fantasy I read, whether for kids or for adults. Lovely review, Nan!

  22. Thank you, Kiirstin! You'll read it together with your little one! It is such a great book.

  23. One of my very favourite books Nan. I love British children's books. Have you read The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston? Another lovely read with a delicious, mysterious ghost theme.

    Now I'm going to click on your bookshelf and read your titles! I'd love a series on some of those books.

  24. Kathie, isn't it just wonderful! I'm so pleased you wrote to tell me. I haven't read Green Knowe. I have great hopes of reading some of the kid books next year.

  25. The Green Knowe series (there are, I think, 3 books in that?) are wonderful, and I have meant to find and re-read them for ages! You mentioning them here has just reminded me of that. Thank you, Kathie!

  26. Librarian, this is what I love the most about comments - the conversations! I really must begin that series sometime.

  27. Hello Nan! You found my blog and left me a link to yours so that I could look at what you wrote re. Tom's Midnight Garden. Thanks so much - always interesting to see what others think. You also liked some more of my choices..... glad you did because they are not everyone's cup of tea, and I must say that I only add books I want to recommend to others on my own blog. I hope you will find "Letters on a postcard", too, and put it on your own blog - I look forward to spotting it, as I am going to follow you now.

    1. It is such a wonderful book!
      I did find the Postcard book in a used version. Thanks.


I'll answer your comments as soon as I possibly can. Please do come back if you've asked a question.
Also, you may comment on any post, no matter how old, and I will see it.