Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines….
The smallest one was Madeline.*
In an old school in Sydney (not sure about the vines), there lived eleven little girls who went with their teacher, Miss Renshaw, to the Ena Thompson Memorial Gardens to see Morgan, the poet-gardener, and to bask in his wisdom. Morgan led them to a cave on the beach to see the Aboriginal paintings. They all returned except for Miss Renshaw. The headmistress and others begged the girls to tell them more about their poetry outing, but the girls sat there silently. After all, Miss Renshaw had said to them, “We won’t mention this, will we, girls? We won’t mention this to anyone. It will be our little secret.”
The main action of this short novel takes place in 1967, when the girls were probably about eleven years old, followed by a few brief chapters on their graduation day in 1975. Within the 149 pages, we get to know four of the characters better than the others: Cubby, Ichara, Martine, and Bethany. (Four of the girls are named Elizabeth.) Cubby is probably the main character, and we see most of the story through her eyes. Ichara is the one whom Miss Renshaw criticized as being a realist, when the world needs idealists. Martine is from New Calcedonia and speaks with a French accent. Bethany weeps uncontrollably in almost every scene.
There are many mysteries here. Who is Morgan, really, and why did their teacher trust someone they met in the park? When it comes to that, what do the girls really know about each other? Who are they when they are not in school? Sometimes they live complicated lives for little girls. Above all is the tension caused by the girls wanting desperately to keep the secret, yet caring very much what happened to their beloved Miss Renshaw. Who will crack, and will it be too late? As an adult reader, I was so aware that when an adult tells a child, “Let’s keep this our little secret,” it’s never wholesome. Did Miss Renshaw run away with Morgan, or is it something much worse?
I could not help remembering the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock, also set in Australia during a school picnic. Then of course, the lines from Madeline also played through my head whenever the girls went anywhere, putting on their hats and pulling up their socks.
Ms. Dubosarsky has created an effective emotional piece in the few pages that she used, and it was very well done. It is not a Printz pick for me, though, for a few reasons. First of all, the girls are only ten or eleven years old for about 85% of the book, and the Printz Award is for teen literature. Secondly, none of the characters is completely developed, and I do tend to gravitate to characters in a novel, rather than plot or any other element. Thirdly, there are several other works this past year that I like much better.
In my next post, I intend to write up which books I hope to see win the 2014 Printz Award. Stay tuned!
*Bemelmans, Ludwig. Madeline, 1939.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.