`The Secret Garden' blooms

MOST readers will say the book moved them, unforgettably. Others say, quite simply, that it changed their lives, in ways as varied, unique, and ultimately ineffable as the personalities of the readers themselves. ``The Secret Garden,'' Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel about three children who bring an abandoned, overgrown garden back to life, has maintained its popularity for some 50 years now.

Since the novel has entered the public domain this year, numerous new editions have appeared, and more are sure to follow.

One of the reasons for the book's perennial appeal may well be because it is about one of the archetypal journeys of life, from disease to health and wholeness.

Mary Lennox starts out an ill-tempered orphan who comes to live with a distant relative in what appears at first to be a gloomy house on the English moors, Misselthwaite Manor. Soon, though, the gothic mists begin to lift. Mary gets some color in her cheeks, makes friends with the good country people who tend the manor, and discovers that mysterious walled garden at the center of the grounds and determines to make it flower again.

As Mary and the garden grow, she is able to help those other wounded people around her - her hypochondriac, bed-ridden cousin, Colin, and her uncle, the distant, heartsick Archibald Craven.

These transformations eliminate the boundary lines that often artificially separate the generations in children's books, making this a work that is deeply touching for both younger and older readers.

This intergenerational quality brings to mind C.S. Lewis's often quoted remark: ``I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.''

For a time, the only version available had been the one with Tasha Tudor's small, black-and-white illustrations. They may still be the best, even though Tudor does not draw exceptionally well, because they do the least damage to the text. Tudor offers the fewest images of characters or scenes, thus leaving it up to the reader to visualize most of the action of the novel - which is the point.

On the other hand, Kathy Williams gives us a series of cluttered, pastel pictures that contain rather than expand our vision of the plot. Michael Hague's strangely positioned, Rackham-esque pictures tend to be dark and overdone. He portrays Mary, for example, with the long blond hair and the look of a contemporary California kid.

Unfortunately, James Howe's ``adaptation'' of the story is a travesty, matched only by Thomas Allen's muddy illustrations. Among many other essential elements, Howe simply leaves out the first chapter of the novel.

There are few more poignant beginnings in books for children than this chapter in which Mary loses first her father and then her thoughtless mother, during a cholera epidemic in India, and is left alone, forgotten in their deserted house.

The only new illustrated version that comes close to preserving the feeling of the original is Graham Rust's; his spare, restrained decorations and pictures respect the text and its characters, and give the reader room to breathe. But even Rust would be doing more to save the story if, in fact, he did less.

The edition I prefer is the one without any illustrations at all, by Dell. This frees Burnett's words to run their own, natural way, like the magic - ``th' Big Good Thing'' - which the children discover and nurture and invoke to start the garden blooming again.

Burnett's story does not need help, other than her audience's active imagination, to take us to these secret places.

John Cech teaches children's literature in the English Department at the University of Florida. He is the editor of ``American Writers for Children, 1900-1960.''

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