I first read this book when I was a child. Or perhaps it was just that I watched the BBC drama and later fancied that I read it. I have certainly read it again within the last ten years so I don’t know why I’d forgotten pretty much the whole thing. I retained the name Tom. And also the fact there’s a garden in it and I knew something happened around midnight. So all in all, I was doing badly.
What I did definitely know was that I had really enthusiastic feelings about it! “YES! I LOVE that book!” I was so sure it was brilliant and magical and a classic worthy of its status that I decided I wanted the children in my life to have a bit of that too, so I tried to sell it them “there’s an enchanted garden, there’s mystery and magic and forbidden night-time adventures… its about a boy called Tom… um… look there’s an archer’s bow on the cover…”I also just really wanted them to put down their Beanos and Super Mario comics and get some good classic literature into their reading diets. So the kids caved and let me read it to them. I sealed the deal with the promise of a chapter a night at a time when they were supposed to be getting into bed.
Sold on the extra night-time treat, they developed a game called Finding Story Time, which involves spinning each other around in close range to our burning fire and then throwing themselves out of imaginary lift doors until they find the right one—the Story Time door. Possibly more exciting than the first ten chapters of the book.
For at least the first third of the story (that’s over a week) the flinging and almost burning themselves game was definitely the best part off our new ritual. And at that stage I regretted making this one of the first classics we shared together.
The pacing is off (why didn’t I rememember that?) and the language and style are well… chewy (or was I just reading it badly?) But even Book Biscuit got fed up when we had to wait so long for Hatty and Tom to even meet properly. And then there was an entire chapter where Tom tries to work out which era Hatty is from by looking into an encyclopedia (the technology obsessed six year old was biting his knuckles and kicking my thigh by the end of this chapter). We had to try to keep up with Tom’s thoughts as he read through the information about costume and fashion and The Duke of Wellington’s trousers—though I did manage to bring it round a little bit with a discussion about how interesting it is that once men didn’t wear trousers and the eight year old quite liked this (anything to put in his ‘Today’s Gender Rules Suck’ argument on the playground).
And then just when the book was nearly over and I was worrying about my early on-set dementia, the story got so good and so enthralling their little ears wanted more and more. I know this because they began to sit still.
Everything turned around; the magical moment when Hatty leaves her skates in a cubby-hole for the future Tom to find is brilliant. And it gets so emotional when Hatty as an old woman and Tom as himself, in his own time, eventually meet—and then say goodbye. Suddenly, it was as good as my misty brain had been telling me.
But the deathly slow start did almost kill it for all of us. In hindsight it was probably only really Abel and Hatty’s nasty Aunt that kept us hanging in through the first nine chapters. I think that young readers will need serious staying power for this book but the idea and the magic in the last, lets say, third of the story should be worth it. When we finished, after a silence which you get from actual, real contemplation and enjoyment, the eight year old said, “I want to read it myself now.” I can’t help but doubt he’ll make it through those chewy bits though…
TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN is a classic and it is worthy of that title but I somehow doubt it would get published today, even in a more modern form, because of its pacing issues. I think this would make the title tricky for a modern target audience to get into. It’s suitable for 7+ readers but they’d need exceptional concentration to stay with it.
Despite all of this, I still love the story though because I just love the IDEA. Even with a bruised thigh from my kicky six year old and having to wade through the trouser chapter, I still came out the end feeling inspired.
Book Biscuits best bits
Book Biscuit listened patiently (because I made him) and anyway he likes period dramas and such, which got him through the slow parts.
His best bit was when Tom’s brother, Peter arrived through his dreeeam! Ooo!
And his other BEST bit is when the magic really got going after Hatty hides her ice-skates for Tom to find in a different Time. Gasp!