Serendipity and "The Secret Garden"

A fortuitous visit from author Janet Taylor Lisle brings expert perspective to senior English class.

Adam Loyd
July 24, 2019
Janet Taylor Lisle and her husband Dick Lisle sit in on Exeter English class

Janet Taylor Lisle (center) and Dick Lisle ‘54 drop in on Becky Moore’s senior English class.

As students file into English Instructor Becky Moore’s Children’s Literature class in the waning days of the spring term, they are greeted by alum Dick Lisle ’54 and his wife, Janet Taylor Lisle. On campus for Dick’s 65-year class reunion, the couple is eager to sit in on a Harkness discussion. The students are unfazed by their guests’ presence — a common occurrence during reunion season — until Taylor Lisle’s credentials come to light. 

A Newbery Medal Honor recipient for her 1989 novel Afternoon of the Elves, Taylor Lisle has published 20 works of children’s literature. In an instance of, as Moore puts it, “serendipity,” Taylor Lisle finds herself in the senior elective class where students analyze texts written for young readers from the perspective of both the child and the adult author. 

The conversation on this day centers on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, The Secret Garden. Class begins with students sharing passages they found especially evocative from the assigned chapters. Emeline Scales ’19 reads a brief but layered line of text that caught her eye. “His whole face brightened and a little color came into it,” Scales recites. She explains her interpretation of the selected quotation as referring to not only the improving mental and physical state of one of the novel’s protagonists, but also the resurgence of the once beautiful garden that had fallen into ruin. 

Central to the Harkness discussion is whether literary devices, like the one highlighted by Scales, are lost on younger readers. And if so, does it matter? 

Instructor Becky Moore and her students discuss "The Secret Garden."

Liz Williams ’19 says she first read The Secret Garden in fourth grade but doesn’t recall how much of a parallel between the garden’s growth and the main characters’ transformations she retained. If young readers aren’t able to overtly grasp examples of allegory, Williams wonders aloud, is it possible that subconsciously they do? 

Anna Shattuck ’19 says she feels young readers’ ability to make the connection between the growth of the characters and the garden is “unimportant” to the ultimate takeaway of the novel. “You see the characters are maturing and getting better and you also see the garden, with nurturing from others, is growing,” she says. “You don’t necessarily need to be able to draw the line from one to another to see the main idea of growth.” 

Sharing with the class insight from her unique perspective, Taylor Lisle explains the complexities authors must juggle when simultaneously writing for young readers and adult gatekeepers. 

“The adult world is reviewing our books, so there’s a real dichotomy,” she says. “What I’ve always done is write on two levels.” 

Taylor Lisle talks about the joy adult readers can find when rereading a favorite novel from childhood, something she thinks about in her own work. 

“That’s one of the cool things about writing for kids: As an adult you come back and think, ‘Wow, there’s this whole other structure here that I didn’t pick up on when I was a kid,’” she says. “It’s what makes these stories so eternal.”  

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.