A Bit of Earth by Karuna Riazi

A Bit of Earth by Karuna Riazi. Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins, 2023. 9780063098664 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4.5

Format: Hardcover

What did you like about the book? Maria Latif has been bounced around most of her life, shuffled from one family member to another even before the death of her parents traveling in Australia. Maria is not a bubbly, happy young woman. She’s contrary and challenging and does not suffer fools gladly. Maria doesn’t trust many; actually, she doesn’t trust anyone. 

This retelling of the classic The Secret Garden mirrors the story in so many ways but also opens a window into a very different world than the original. Maria is a Bangladeshi/Pakistani Muslim girl. She’s been sent to New York to stay with friends of her parents, alums that went to the same college. Mr. and Mrs. Clayborne are her new guardians except Mr. Clayborne has left on a sudden business trip and left his wife, his second wife, to deal with Maria. Again she feels abandoned by someone who is supposed to care for her. When Maria and Lyndsay Clayborne arrive at the mansion on Long Island Maria feels a spark of something as she sees the trees and plants that are abundant in the yard; she loves gardening.

She meets Charlotte Clayborne, Lyndsay’s mother-in-law, and is already on the defensive when she’s told where she can and cannot go and what she can and cannot do. Lyndsay is respectful to Mrs. Clayborne but also seems intimidated by her. While exploring the yard Maria finds a garden that’s been abandoned and locked away since the death of the first Mrs. Clayborne. This becomes her secret passion. Then Colin Clayborne is sent home from his boarding school and things get tense.

Meanwhile, Mimi and Rick who are neighbors, have befriended Maria and along with Colin begin to secretly reclaim the garden. As they work together they bond and Maria begins to feel at home. She’s even becoming closer to Lyndsay who sees her not as a problem but as someone she enjoys sharing her recipes and spending time with especially in the kitchen.   One day Lyndsay finds the kids in the garden, and all heck breaks loose in an unexpected way, especially when Mr. Clayborne comes home earlier than expected.

The story includes chapters in verse scattered throughout the novel. The writing flows and the descriptions of the home and the garden are vivid and lovely. Even if readers don’t know the original story they will be enthralled by Maria and how she handles her life and the world around her.

Anything you didn’t like about it? The ending came so quickly that we didn’t have much time to really appreciate it. 

To whom would you recommend this book?  Readers who want to read a familiar story from a different perspective and anyone who wants to read a reimagining of an old favorite.

Who should buy this book? Middle-grade school libraries and public libraries 

Where would you shelve it? Middle-grade fiction

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes, especially if you are a fan of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City and State: Maria Touet, Malden Catholic High School, Malden, MA

Date of review: March 24, 2023

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