School is starting! As the air turns brisk, apples ripen and leaves reveal shades of gold, now is the perfect time to read books.
Many middle-grade children are not excited readers. Only 40% of American eight-year-olds say they “love reading,”reports Scholastic. That number drops to 28% among nine-year-olds. That’s where The Secret Library comes in.
The Secret Library holds shelves of the world’s rare and marvelous children’s books. The librarian, Ms. Clandestine Hush, spends her days cataloguing beautifully-bound manuscripts. Every day, precisely at 10:00 a.m., she holds Secret Storytime. Next, she conducts a private tour—showcasing the library’s Secret Staircase—allowing children to climb the steps and explore the highest stacks. Finally, Ms. Hush leads the children in roasting s’mores over the library’s roaring fireplace.
The Secret Library is free and open to all children. However, because the library is small, special and one-of-a-kind, only 10 children are admitted each day—and parents are kept at bay. Ms. Hush maintains the official “Wait List” with the names of children eager to enter The Secret Library—a scroll longer than Santa’s Nice List.
Fortunately, I have Ms. Hush’s permission to share with you, my dear reader, five titles of the most secret and special books in her library. Just in case you’d like to read a few in the weeks ahead—while you wait for your child’s name to come up on her Wait List.
What makes The Secret Library’s books top-secret? Different reasons. One book narrowly escaped destruction at the hands of Hitler’s army. Another book was dismissed outright by popular critics upon publication—only to achieve acclaim after the author’s death. And one book’s Disney film adaptation is so famous that few young people have read the original story. Here they are…
5 Books in “The Secret Library”
1. Curious George, by H. A. and Margaret Rey. Many children have heard of “The Man With the Yellow Hat” and his playful companion, a mischievous monkey named George. Most children do not realize the odds that George’s creators overcame to bring him to life on the printed page.
In 1940, the married couple H. A. and Margaret Rey – both German Jews residing in Paris – packed their prize possession, the manuscript for Curious George, in their bike baskets and pedaled out of Paris, into Étampes and on to the Orléans train stations. Bombs rocked Étampes just two days after the Reys biked through.
I recently read The Journey That Saved Curious George, by Louise Borden which chronicles the Rey’s daring escape from Europe to Brazil and ultimately to safety, freedom and publication in the United States. If you love Curious George, you’ll enjoy learning about the Rey’s bold journey that saved their lives—as well as their stories and illustrations about a very curious little monkey.
2. Stuart Little, by E. B. White. “NOT RECOMMENDED FOR PURCHASE BY EXPERT,” New York Public Librarian Frances Clarke Sayers stamped Stuart Little when it was published in 1945.
Librarians and adults were largely underwhelmed and stunned (in a bad way) by E. B. White’s fantasy featuring a mouse “born” into a human family. The audacity of E. B. White to expose innocent children to such dangerous material! “It’s unnerving to be told that you’re bad for children,” E. B. White lamented. Still, he stood firm, saying: “A [make-believe] fence that can throw a librarian is nothing to a child.”
Ultimately, children saved Stuart Little. Ignoring the criticisms of adults and so-called “experts,” children quickly filled E. B. White’s mailbox with thousands of enthusiastic fan mail letters. The book went on to win the Wilder Medal in 1970 and to be adapted into movies, a television series and video games in the 1990s and early 2000s. Learn more in Melissa Sweet’s fabulous children’s biography: Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White.
3. The Rabbit’s Wedding, by Garth Williams. Many children are familiar with Garth Williams as the illustrator of books by E. B. White (Charlotte’s Webb and Stuart Little); Laura Ingles Wilder (Little House series); and Margaret Wise Brown (The Friendly Book and Home for a Bunny).
In 1958, Williams published a tale that he wrote and illustrated entirely himself about the wedding of a black and a white rabbit. Critiques and bans resulted as politicians—most notably in Alabama—spurned the book for apparently promoting interracial marriage. Alabama’s state library director actually resigned under pressure after “daring” to display William’s work on bookshelves accessible to children. Today, we are shocked to learn of such blatant prejudice.
4. Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers. Many people are familiar with the 1964 Disney musical film based on the 1934 book. Disney’s film, starring Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins and Dick Van Dyke as Bert won five Academy Awardsâ and was a huge commercial success. In 2018, Disney followed up with another musical film, Mary Poppins Returns.
It won’t surprise you to know that the movie differs from the book. For example, Mary Poppins is more persnickety in the book than she comes across in Julie Andrews’ portrayal; several spectacular scenes are not included in the movie; and the Banks family home is not luxurious. Number Seventeen is: “…the smallest house in the Lane. And besides that, it is the only one that is rather dilapidated and needs a coat of paint.”
If you and your child enjoyed Disney’s film adaptions, I suggest giving the original book a chance. P. L. Travers wrote eight Mary Poppins books in all. If you enjoy reading the first book, there are more to look forward to!
5. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Featuring three children who learn courage, hope and an appreciation for nature while overcoming prejudice—this story was widely criticized and dismissed upon publication in 1911.
Hodgson Burnett was apparently ahead of her time. After her death, the book skyrocketed to popularity and has been adapted into countless films and other forms of media. Upon visiting our local bookstore last weekend, my husband and I were delighted to find tall stacks of The Secret Garden beautifully bound and prominently displayed.
This. Classic. Is. Back.
Thank you for learning more about The Secret Library. Ms. Clandestine Hush believes these books will engage your child’s imagination—opening new windows of exploration and discovery.
Please share this post with a friend looking for good children’s books.