Yesterday afternoon, as I prepped my home to host and run the first meeting of K’s book club, I felt an odd nervousness. What if the girls—the gaggle of eight year olds arriving straight from a birthday party—were just not interested? The book was The Secret Garden, which I knew for a fact some of them did not enjoy, and did not finish. K was among those. For the first couple of weeks of the month, I had reminded her repeatedly to read the book, until it became clear she just was not nearly as absorbed by it as she was by the Goosebumps series with which she’s recently become obsessed. I worried that the other girls would come grudgingly, that their lack of interest would be indicative of a failure on my part or, worse of society in general.
I used the precious time that the toddler was asleep and K was at the birthday party to make afternoon tea sandwiches (cuke and butter, cuke and cream cheese, salmon and cream cheese) and set out a bone china tea set, to dash out to buy a bouquet of roses (the main flower of the garden in the book) and set up a table of pencils and markers for the girls to draw their own secret garden. I created personalized binders, and book review sheets, and all the while I thought: I could be using this time to read, to write, to exercise, to do any number of things for myself which are always the first to fall by the wayside. I grumbled at myself for, once again, putting too much of myself into something that could yield disappointment, for caring too much.
At exactly five o’clock, they arrived, carpooling from the birthday party. I opened the door and let in a gush of cold air and a tumble of jabbering kids, one of whom immediately showed me the copy of the book she read and told me how “cool” it was that she was reading the selfsame copy her mother read 30 years ago. They flung their jackets on the newel post and disgorged their birthday loot (panda-themed bracelets, goodies, stuffed pandas) on the couch and chairs and floor. They set upon their binders, looking at the book review sheets, and coloring the stars to rate the book. Are there snacks? they asked. I told them there was tea, finger sandwiches and scones, and they squealed in delight and asked if they could have tea right away. (I spared them treacle and porridge and beef-tea, which would have been more true to the book. What is beef-tea anyway?) My worries dissolved.
What followed was the most enjoyable and satisfying 90 minutes I have ever spent with a bunch of 8 year olds. We fell into an animated, engaging, literary discussion of the language, plot and characters of The Secret Garden. We talked about the use of “broad Yorkshire” and how the choice of language, although at times difficult to decipher, added immeasurably to the sense of place. We discussed the ways in which the book is different from what the girls usually read, and they made astute observations about “the Harry Potter era” of books. We talked about attitude, how it can change, what made Mary a “sour” child, whether she helped Colin for himself or for her or for some other reason. The girls told me about which parts they “connected” with the most. We discussed the “magic” of the garden. We talked about what constitutes a “classic.” The girls were raising their hands, jumping up and down for a chance to express themselves. We could have gone on for much longer, but we had not budgeted enough time.
They all had tea, and downed the scones and sandwiches and berries. They drew elaborate secret gardens of their own, with tree houses and swimming pools. They discussed and negotiated the choice of the book for May (From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), and clamored for their copies of the April book (Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing), announcing they were going to start reading it right away. And then they all left in a whoosh like flock of twittering birds, gathering up their birthday goodies, riffling through the pile of clothes for their pink and purple and blue jackets, and clattering down the stairs to the cars of the three parents who were going to redistribute them to their respectful homes in the neighborhood.
They left behind scone crumbs on the rug, a coffee table strewn with teacups and plates, a water bottle, a plastic bag from a party favor, and a very pleased hostess. Among all the things I have volunteered to do, this one so far has yielded the highest satisfaction-to-effort ratio.