Ok, so it’s not a picture book but I’m reviewing it anyway.
One of the many ways I imbibed literature as a child was through books on tape often listened to on long car trips, drives to school, and cranky-stuck-in-traffic trips to Friday night family dinners. I listened to The Children of Green Knowe countless times when I was younger and it has stuck with me ever since. Though I could never remember any details until I reread it this week I would find it flitting through my mind any time I stumbled upon – or under – a particularly magic-looking tree or some other subtle wonder of nature. Green Knowe and its delightful cast of characters has stuck with me for over a decade and so I decided to reread it and share it here.
Lucy M. Boston first published this novel in 1954, it is the first novel in a series of six. After her marriage, Boston moved to a lovely, large manor house near Cambridge, England. The house is the setting for her stories. When she was still alive, Boston would give tours to visitors and fans and after her death her daughter-in-law took over this tradition and still was still guiding tours at the date of publication of my edition of the novel, in 2006.
Toseland, or Tolly for short, is our main character; a name only fitting for a quintessentially British children’s novel. The novel opens with Tolly on a train, he is going to Green Noah – previously called Green Knowe – to live with his great grandmother, whom he has never met. Tolly is clearly a lonely child, no friends and little family. Tolly’s mother died and his father is living in a foreign country with his new wife whom Tolly seems less than fond of. At first, Tolly is nervous about the prospect of a new home but that all changes. Mrs. Oldknow, Tolly’s great grandmother, is the kind of woman who will spread butter all over your hands and watch as the birds eat it off, teach you to play the flute, is full of stories, has an imagination lively enough to match a young boys, lives in a big old castle with huge grounds, and seems to have many magical and mysterious secrets. Mrs. Oldknow starts to tell Tolly stories from the past about his long-dead relatives. Soon Tolly begins to discover these relatives may be dead but are anything but gone.
Alexander, Toby, and Linnett are children who had lived in the house with their large family and relatives of Tolly’s from many centuries ago. They also still “live” and laugh all over the house and grounds, along with other family members and pets. These children are playful, happy, shy, and wonderful. This is definitely not a ghost story. At first Tolly only had his suspicions about the trio: he would hear laughter and games of tag but never see them. Soon, Tolly would sometimes catch a glimpse of a gleeful child in a mirror but as soon as he whirled around to see this person for real they had always vanished. Eventually Tolly is able to win over these children and they laugh and play together.
Tolly and Mrs. Oldknow are the only two characters to ever see the children or others who wander the grounds though Boggis, the old groundskeeper, is often around. Because there is never any solidity to these findings and the children often appear in dreamy scenes and disappear just as quickly, there is a sense of ambiguity surrounding their actual existence or simply the imagination and games between a boy and his great grandmother.
The Children of Green Knowe has a dreamy quality of surrealism and lively imagination. Tolly explores the picturesque but wild grounds, sometimes with the children and sometimes alone, befriending the animals, statues, and topiary – all except for the legendary and ominous shrubbery called Green Noah.
Black and white illustration sparsely populate the novel. The dark and mysterious nature of the art connotes the mysterious but friendly atmosphere of Green Knowe. Boston’s books are all illustrated by her son, Peter Boston.
This is a vaguely Christian book in a warm, Christmas-y way that, in my opinion, does not disrupt the reader’s experience if they don’t happen to be Christian themselves. To give some context, the religious undertones are subtler and fewer than the Narnia series.
As this is an actual novel I can give you some longer tidbits then usual. Here is the first paragraph, strongly, almost hypnotically pulling you into the story with the word magic she works.
A little boy was sitting in the corner of a railway carriage looking out at the rain, which was splashing against the windows and blotching downward in an ugly, dirty way. He was not the only person in the carriage, but the others were strangers to him, a fat one and a thin one, and they talked without stopping, smacking their lips in between sentences and seeming to enjoy what they said as much as if it were something to eat. They were knitting all the time, and whenever the train stopped the click-clack of their needles was loud and clear like two clocks. It was a stopping train – more stop than go – and it had been crawling along through flat flooded country for a long time. Everywhere there was water – not sea or rivers or lakes, but just senseless flood water with the rain splashing into it. Sometimes the railway lines were covered by it, and then the train-noise was quite different, softer than a boat.
As I hope you agree, the novel is deliciously well written. Imagery and imagined sounds created by Boston’s marvelous writing roundly resound through this paragraph and the rest of the book. The rhythmic splashing of water and clacking of knitting needles lulls the reader into a wordy trance, continuing on in their mind even after they shift their gaze to the next paragraph. The text chugs on like the train, enveloping the reader, blanketing their imagination, lovingly cradling Tolly and the others within its pages until the final period.
CLICK HERE for a virtual tour of the real Green Knowe with author interview and photographs.