Tag: mystery (page 1 of 1)

The Night Gardener

There was a time when I did not love scary stories. By “scary stories,” I mean the books I stumbled into in my youth—some of them age-appropriate fluff and some truly terrifying, books that were well beyond me both in content and complexity. Some of them haunt me still, and not in a pleasant “Oh, that gave me chills!” kind of way.

So, I did not love scary stories. And I applied the term “scary stories” not only to books written to send readers to bed with flashlights and cold sweats, but also to books with ruthless and unsettling villains, books that had scary parts in them.

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story

But then three things happened:

  1. I read N. D. Wilson’s 100 Cupboards trilogy and discovered a kind of scary that was also redemptive and, really, quite fun.
  2. My eldest daughter turned eight and woke up one day a much less sensitive reader. Books that might have upset her six months earlier she read without a hint of squeamishness. Indeed, she even seemed to enjoy them. A new vista of reading expanded before us!
  3. I came across N. D. Wilson’s article for The Atlantic on why he writes scary stories for children. In that article, N. D. Wilson writes:

“There is absolutely a time and a place for The Pokey Little Puppy and Barnyard Dance, just like there’s a time and a place for footie pajamas. But as children grow, fear and danger and terror grow with them, courtesy of the world in which we live and the very real existence of shadows. The stories on which their imaginations feed should empower a courage and bravery stronger than whatever they are facing. And if what they are facing is truly and horribly awful (as is the case for too many kids), then fearless sacrificial friends walking their own fantastical (or realistic) dark roads to victory can be a very real inspiration and help.”

And just like that, my mind changed.

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story

It was this new attitude that gave me room to try The Night Gardener, a book I may not have bothered with pre-“N. D. Wilson on scary stories.” But I bothered with it and I’m so glad, because The Night Gardener totally creeped me out, but it also gave me a new appreciation for what a scary story can be.

The Night Gardener follows Molly and Kip, two Irish children who are separated from their parents while crossing the sea to England. When they take a position serving the Windsor family at an eerie manor in the sourwoods, they find themselves in the thick of a mystery. A haunting, don’t-read-this-before-bed mystery.

It’s clear that Jonathan Auxier set out to write a scary story, and I love the way he approached it: Molly and Kip are wonderful, warm-hearted heroes, who are stretched and challenged throughout the story and who grow in some gratifying ways as they face the terrors of the Windsor estate. I love, too, the way Auxier explores what happens when we try to take by force the things we were never meant to have, and his quiet commentary on the difference between stories and lies.

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story

This was a book I wanted to stay up late with but didn’t, because I wanted to sleep and sleep is a rare, fleeting thing here, and so I did not read it before bed. But I did spend an entire naptime on the couch with it, reading, eating chocolate, and refusing to feel guilty about using a pile of unfolded laundry as a backrest. That is a sign of good book.


Have you heard Jonathan Auxier on the Read-Aloud Revival podcast? You really should. I had read none of his books when I listened. I have since read and loved all three (stay tuned for reviews of the other two). This episode definitely made my list of favorites—maybe even top five. It’s a good one.

The Night Gardener
Jonathan Auxier (2015)

The Boxcar Children

My brother was whoever I told him to be when we played “Boxcar Children” under the great, drooping tree beside our house (I was usually Jessie, but sometimes Violet). I read the whole series ravenously as a child, but was reluctant to pick them up again as an adult, in part because the books in the series have cheesy covers, but mostly because there are, frankly, so many of them. (Always be suspicious of very long series: its rare that an author can tell a good story over the course of thirty or more books that all have the word “mystery” in the title.) I suppose I worried that the books just wouldn’t be as wonderful as I remembered.

In a way, I was right. The later books are watered down, having been handed over to ghost writers (note the “Created By” on the cover) after the nineteenth book. Those writers also inexplicably removed the characters from their original time period—in the 1920s or ’30s—and plunked them into the 1990s (scrunchies and all), an unpardonable offense.

The Boxcar Children | Little Book, Big Story

However (and that is an emphatic “however”), the very first book, the original Boxcar Children, is lovely. I gave it another try after seeing it listed on an excellent reading list featured on The Gospel Coalition, and the sweetness of the book enchanted me all over again. After the iconic opening sentences, “One warm night four children stood in front of a bakery. No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from,” the story of four children, aged five to fourteen, learning to take care of themselves after the death of their parents, unfolds gently as the children set up a new home in an abandoned boxcar in the woods. They eat berries and cook stew over an open fire and take care of one another in a way that is enchanting to children and beautiful to parents.

The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner | Little Book, Big Story

Perhaps this is an example of a story that should have been left alone to be its own story, rather than turned into a series that is still, to this day, going strong. But I suppose that part of the appeal of The Boxcar Children as a series is it works well for a variety of age levels: after Lydia and I read the original story, she set her sights on the subsequent books in the series (which I skim through on my own, but let her read for herself), while Sarah and I curl up on the couch together and read aloud from The Boxcar Children. Lydia announced recently that she has changed her name from Mary to Jessie. Sarah is still Anna from Frozen, but her dolls are now Henry and Violet. In the end, this was a childhood favorite well worth revisiting.

The Boxcar Children
Gertrude Chandler Warner (1924)