Big Questions for Small Readers

Philipa Pearce’s 1958 Tom’s Midnight Garden (Harper Trophy, $5.95, 229 pp., ages 10 and up) is considered one of the finest novels written for children, "as near as any book I know to being perfect in its construction and writing" according to critic John Rowe Townsend. But I think Pearce’s recently republished first novel, Minnow on the Say (illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, Greenwillow, $16.95, 246 pp., ages 8 and up) is even better. Yes, Tom’s Midnight Garden is terrific. It tells the story of a boy whose loneliness is both expressed and relieved by nightly play in a sprawling and inhabited late-Victorian garden which, by day, is mere pavement and garbage cans. The nature of time, desire, and memory-Pearce delicately conveys and considers each. And yet...communication technology and style have changed, enough that Tom’s means of expression (effusive letters to his beloved brother) slightly estranges today’s reader.

Not so Minnow on the Say, with its timeless, if more conventional plot. The story begins in 1930s England when David Moss, the child of a bus driver, finds a lovely, neglected canoe tossed onto his family’s dock after a storm swells the river Say. He desperately wants to keep it, but his father urges him to find the owner. That turns out to be young Adam Codling. He is last in the line of a now-impoverished family that has occupied the banks of the Say for centuries. The only way that the Codling...

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About the Author

Daria Donnelly (1959-2004) was an associate editor of Commonweal from 2000 to 2004. In 2002, after having been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, she became associate editor (at large) and co-editor of the poetry section.