Plot: Mary Lennox is a sour and selfish girl, spoiled by an Indian nanny and neglected by her parents. When they are killed, she is sent back to England to live with her uncle Archibald Craven, a mysterious and lonely man. He rarely returns to his home in Yorkshire, and leaves Mary to the care of Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper, and Martha, the maid. Both are busy, and Mary has nothing to do but wander around the moors.
One day, Mary finds the key to a secret garden, once the favorite place for her uncle and his wife, whom he adored. After she died, he locked it up and swore no one would go in there again. Mary is determined to find it.
Following the sound of crying she often hears in the night, she finds that there is another child living in the house. It is her uncle’s son, Colin. He has been confined to bed all his life and is spoiled and demanding to the point of hysteria. Mary soothes him by telling him about the garden. Later, when he has a tantrum, she is the first person ever to impose limits on his behavior. He tells her that he is afraid he will have a hunched back like his father, and she tells him his back is fine.
Mary finds the garden, and she and Colin and Martha’s brother Dickon work to bring it back to life. As they do, Mary and Colin get stronger in body and in spirit. When Archibald returns, he meets them in the garden. They run to him, and it is clear that the garden will heal him, too.
Discussion: Every child should read this book and see at least one of the filmed versions. Children respond to Mary Lennox because (at least in the beginning) she is so unlikable, a relief from all the Pollyannas and Cinderellas who are rewarded for their relentlessly sunny characters and good deeds. And then there is the pleasure of meeting Colin, who is even worse, a “young rajah” who has had his every wish granted instantly and is surrounded only by those who live in terror of his hysteria. Mary and Colin are a perfect match for each other, and the scene in which she responds to his tantrum with fury is one of the most satisfying in any children’s book — indeed, in any book, as is the scene in which they enter the garden together, a wonderful metaphor for all that is going on inside their spirits.