I hesitate to say anything negative about an Edward Eager book. Many readers seem to consider his the gold standard of children’s time travel tales and so I fear my overall book reviewing judgement may be called into question. I did sometimes find The Time Garden, Edward Eager, (1958, 193 pages) to be charming. The problem is, charming can teeter on the edge of cloying, and in this book I feel it fell in. I’m going to go ahead and say it: I hated the quaint tone of writing in this story, I despised beyond all reason the talking frog especially when he spoke in a dialect, and I had to force myself to sit down and finish this novel.
Plot summary: four cousins stay for the summer with Mrs. Whiton, a distant relative, in an old house on the South Shore near Boston. They meet a magic talking toad who informs them the thyme in the garden is also magic. They only have to rub some in their hands and smell it and they’ll be transported to another time and/or place. They get to be involved with Paul Revere‘s famous ride, and talk with travelers on the Underground Railroad. They visit the home of Louisa May Alcott and meet the real people upon whom the Little Women characters were based. They have a brief encounter with Ann and Roger’s mother as a child who has been captured by cannibals. These and other time travel trips are episodic, and in between trips the kids are left on their own to just swim and relax.
I worked several years as a Speech-Language Pathologist in elementary schools. Since that experience, when reading a chapter book it is often in the back of my mind how students with weak language skills might read it. I once tried to read a book I’d loved in my childhood, From , with one of my fifth-grade language students. She never complained, but the complex sentence constructions, figures of speech, and vocabulary that I had to break down for her made it a very slow slog. Here are some examples of phrases from The Time Garden which would be lost on many average and below average readers:
tipping redcaps in a lordly way,wasn’t that a keen girl,any more of that…and you’ll rue the day, isn’t she an old grenadier, whatever those books are that she writes…they must be for Spartan children
These are from the first chapter and there are many more throughout the book. Combined with allusions to historical events with which many of today’s kids would not be familiar, I think it would be hard for many middle grade readers to appreciate this book. Of course, reading is one of the best ways for kids to improve their world knowledge and their vocabularies, so I’m not advocating we “dumb down” middle grade novels. They just need to be reasonably accessible.
I’m not claiming the author does not write well. Eager writes really well. I appreciate the way he constructs his sentences. There is even a beautiful rhythm to some of his passages. A high percentage of the story is dialogue, and I’m a huge fan of dialogue. Although my writing group disagrees, I go so far as to say you can’t have too much of it. I liked a couple of Eager’s characters and his understated humor. I just think overall this book is too dated to have much kid appeal except to above average readers.
I took a hiatus from blogging in August, but now my two dear children are back-to-school, so I should be resuming my most-Mondays book review schedule.