The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
As a child I adored scary fairy tales. Even the ones where the witch’s head got chopped off did not keep me awake at night. Tales in which horrid characters met a gruesome end, where good. Bad characters were supposed to meet a gruesome end. Those tales reiterated to me that bad deeds would be punished, that you had to be good and kind and fair. They taught me right from wrong, exactly what fairy tales had been doing for generations. In fact, their raison d’etre was likely to teach morals to many generations.
Remember the scariest tales told by a campfire? Tales so deliciously exciting that you wouldn’t walk alone through the woods anymore, back to your tent or cabin? Such is the story of The Night Gardener. A very scary page turner that tight rope walks the line between sci/fi-magic-fantasy-folk tale-and-legend. Fine writing, masterful, Harry Potteresque storytelling.
Jane Yolen in her powerful book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood says “A shadowless man is a monster, a devil, a thing of evil. A man without a shadow is soulless. A shadow without a man is a pitiable shred. Yet together, light and dark, they make a whole.” The story of The Night Gardener is whole. Even the physical book is delicious with the gnarly tree and the metallic figure on the cover and its pitch black page edges are perfect and foreboding.
Molly and her brother Kip have come across the sea from Ireland to England. Of course, as is the case in most good stories for children, their parents are no longer around. They are somewhere, lost at sea - neither here nor dead. Molly needs to look after Kip now, make sure her cripple brother will be safe. They need a home, and food.
The two find a house where no one else will work. The aristocratic family, living in a rambling, inherited mansion needs help and can’t afford to be picky so Molly and Kip find both lodging and food to keep them safe.
But we soon find out that, in this mansion, no one is safe. Horrible secrets lurk in the shadows and on the lawns around the house. The ghost like tree lures with promises and wishes. This is a tale of greed and wanting more. ‘What is the difference between a story and lie?’ Molly asks of the storyteller Hester Kettle. And this story lives up to its own answer: ‘a story helps you to face the world’. It weaves a strong tale where all ends are tucked in, where every character is accounted for, every action sees a suitable reaction.
My reaction as a reader? I couldn’t stop turning pages!
In Touch Magic, Jane Yolen states that “[W]hen the modern mythmaker, the writer of literary fairy tales, dares to touch the old magic and try to make it work in new ways, it must be done with the surest of touches. It is, perhaps, a kind of artistic thievery, this stealing of old characters, settings, the accoutrements of magic. But then, in a sense, there is an element of theft in all art; even the most imaginative artist borrows and reconstructs the archetypes when delving into the human heart.”
That’s why I found it satisfying to read Jonathan Auxier’s last pages in which he credits many other tales for helping him to create this new one. One that many young readers will love. One that just won the TD Canada Book Award. And one to which, according to Auxier’s website, that Disney just bought the rights. So, do a young reader a favor: have them read the book so they can see the pictures in their own mind before the movie is made.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to rush off to read his other books: Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes, and - out in April 2016 - Sophie Quire & the Last Storyguard!
Puffin, ISBN 978-0-670-06772-5