In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Gorgeous landscapes and talkative girls

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We've entered a new era.  Eleanor's independent reading has gotten very quickly to the point where she can read novels which were once the province of our read-alouds.  Last week, she read an entire Nancy Drew on the school bus; this week, she picked up the third book in the shrinking people/time-travel Sixty-Eight Rooms series, and is cruising through that as well.  While I'm thrilled about this turn of events, there's a little part of me that wonders what it bodes for our reading together.  As Eleanor is able to read more complex books independently, which ones should we reserve for me to read to her?

One easy answer comes from a recent read-aloud success: the classic 
Anne of Green Gables
, by L.M. Montgomery.

I read Anne of Green Gables as a kid, and retained fond but fuzzy memories of it: an image of Anne floating down a river on a raft and getting into trouble, a recollection of poetry and imaginative play. My mother-in-law gave us a beautiful copy of the book, with color plates, more than a year ago, but I had the sense that would be too early for Eleanor. When a friend mentioned she was reading it with her eight-year-old, I thought I'd give it a try.

I didn't preview it, and in the first few pages of reading aloud, I wondered whether I'd made a mistake about the age Eleanor would be ready for it: the vocabulary, especially in the descriptive narrative sections, is intense. Here's the first sentence of the book:

Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde's Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde's door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.


But Eleanor let it wash over her, and I paused to parse some difficult bits, and as soon as Montgomery dipped into dialogue, the language was clear and the characters sprang to life. Mrs. Rachel Lynde is of course not the protagonist here, but a neighbor of middle-aged siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who mean to adopt a boy from an orphan asylum to help them as they age, but end up accidentally with red-headed, imaginative, glorious Anne Shirley. Here's Anne introducing herself to the quiet, shy Matthew, who has just offered to carry her bag from the train station:

"Oh, I can carry it," the child responded cheerfully. "It isn't heavy. I've got all my worldly goods in it, but it isn't heavy. And if it isn't carried in just a certain way the handle pulls out--so I'd better keep it because I know the exact knack of it.  It's an extremely old carpetbag. Oh, I'm very glad you've come, even if it would have been nice to sleep in a wild cherry tree. We've got to drive a long piece, haven't we? Mrs. Spencer said it was eight miles. I'm glad because I love driving. Oh, it seems so wonderful that I'm going to live with you and belong to you. I've never belonged to anybody--not really. But the asylum was the worst. I've only been in it four months, but that was enough. I don't suppose you ever were an orphan in an asylum, so you can't possibly understand what it is like. It's worse than anything you would imagine. Mrs. Spencer said it was wicked of me to talk like that, but I didn't mean to be wicked. It's so easy to be wicked without knowing it, isn't it? They were good, you know--the asylum people. But there is so little scope for the imagination in an asylum--only just in the other orphans. It was pretty interesting to imagine things about them--to imagine that perhaps the girl who sat next to you was really the daughter of a belted earl, who had been stolen away from her parents in her infancy by a cruel nurse who died before she could confess. I used to lie awake at nights and imagine things like that, because I didn't have time in the day. I guess that's why I'm so thin--I am dreadful thin, ain't I? There isn't a pick on my bones. I do love to imagine I'm nice and plump, with dimples in my elbows."

Eleanor responded viscerally to Anne's talkative nature, and to the rapturous descriptions of the landscape of early 20th-century Prince Edward Island, in Canada. As we read, and watched early fall pass by in New York, she sighed several times, "Oh, I wish we lived in the country!"

I'd remembered that much of the story of Anne of Green Gables follows Anne through a series of amusing scrapes: she accidentally gets her friend Diana drunk on wine which she thinks is raspberry cordial; she puts liniment instead of vanilla in the cake she serves to the minister's wife; she dyes her hair a ghastly green while attempting to turn it raven black. Anne is dramatic and dreamy, constantly imagining new stories for herself. Like Betsy in theBetsy-Tacy books (we're reading the rest of them right now, taking Betsy up into high school and beyond), Anne is a budding writer, drawn to melodrama but with a growing awareness of the power of good literature. She's a natural for Eleanor to love.

What I hadn't remembered was how old Anne gets in this first book -- there are several sequels, taking her up through marriage and children and into middle age -- and how much happens by the end. While the early chapters cover the episodic mishaps of grade school, the last third of the book finds Anne working terribly hard to be the first in her class, vying with Gilbert Blythe (who will later become her husband), heading off to college, and preparing to become a teacher. There is a little too much nostalgia towards the end of the book for my taste -- repeated reminiscing on the part of the adult characters about how much Anne has changed and matured since they first met her -- but it goes by quickly.

Spoiler alert: close to the end of the book, Matthew Cuthbert dies, and Anne gives up a scholarship for further study in order to teach close to home and take care of Marilla. I'd forgotten this was coming, and it was upsetting to Eleanor, but she weathered it, and wants to read the rest of the series.  I don't remember ever reading them myself -- perhaps because the end of the book feels so final? -- but am looking forward to them now, in the company of my grand reading partner.

Love, Annie


  1. Lovely post. Maya's been reading this series recently. She downloaded the whole series - 12 volumes? - on kindle for under a dollar I think. (She's at book three, I can't imagine what happens in the next 9.) Free classic books on kindle are a real gift to parents of voracious readers. Kids have been through Jack London, Louisa May Alcott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, etc. etc. for nothing. Ordinarily we're avid library patrons, but for our year in Paris kindle classics have been a huge help.

  2. I was confused by the link about exactly which edition you have. Who is the illustrator? Is the text complete and original or is it abridged or adapted? Is it currently in print? I have my very old, tattered paperback copies of the series (missing #6, only, mysteriously, as we definitely had them all as a kid), but I'd love a beautiful hardcover illustrated version if it is the original unabridged text. Thanks!

  3. Thanks, Rachel! I haven't yet made the leap to Kindle, but can see the appeal, especially when you're overseas.

  4. Even in Australia: Sorry for the confusion! The first link is to a standard paperback copy available via Indiebound. The image to the right and the link under the text "a beautiful copy of the book, with color plates" are the copy I just read with Eleanor, which is out of print but available via Alibris. It's the original unabridged text.