When I was a kid, I used to wish I had Armitage Mondays. I’ve posted before about Joan Aiken’s charming short stories for children, but these were my favorites, and I hunted them down avidly in each of her collections: the stories of Harriet and Mark Armitage, along with their mother and father and an increasingly odd collection of pets. Here, in The Serial Garden, they’re all collected in one volume — what a luxury!
Thanks to a wishing-stone, the Armitage family has… unusual things happen to them on Mondays (and sometimes on Tuesdays): the parents are turned into ladybugs by a disgruntled witch (or “old fairy lady,” as she is more politely called by the children); every potato in the house turns into a beautiful Venetian glass apple; the ghost who lives in their spare room takes Harriet out for a tour of London; a unicorn appears in their garden; they must care for a newly-fledged griffin; Mark puts together a cardboard garden from the back of a cereal box and discovers that he knows the spell to make it come alive.
When I try to analyze why I loved these stories best of all Aiken’s wonderful work, I think it’s really a combination of factors. Like the children in E. Nesbit and Edward Eager, Mark and Harriet are ordinary children to whom extraordinary things happen. They have school (peculiar school sometimes, but school nonetheless), bedtime, allowance, chores, and enforced manners, and they still get to meet goblins and princesses. It never seemed quite as special to me, somehow, when magical children had magical things happen to them. If it could happen to Mark and Harriet, why not to me?
The other thing — and it’s absolutely crucial — is that Joan Aiken is one of the best storytellers out there. She is deft and funny, she never talks down to children, she isn’t afraid of tragedy, but she never leaves you without hope. Her characters are real and engaging, and she creates a world you want to visit over and over again. I am completely delighted that all the Armitage stories have been collected in The Serial Garden (I pre-ordered it!), and I’m flagging this one as a great Christmas or holiday present for a child on your list, or maybe for yourself!