The Secret Garden On 81st Street – A Retelling Worth Your Time

The Secret Garden with a twist: in this follow-up to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, this full-color graphic novel moves Mary Lennox to a New York City brownstone, where she and her very first group of friends restore an abandoned rooftop garden…and her uncle’s heart.

Mary Lennox is a loner living in Silicon Valley. With her parents always working, video game and tech become her main source of entertainment and “friends.” When her parents pass away in a tragic accident, she moves to New York City to live with her uncle who she barely knows, and to her surprise, keeps a gadget free home. Looking for comfort in this strange, new reality, Mary discovers an abandoned rooftop garden and an even bigger secret…her cousin who suffers from anxiety. With the help of her new friends, Colin and Dickon, Mary works to restore the garden to its former glory while also learning to grieve, build real friendships, and grow.


This VERY breezy graphic novel from writer Ivy Noelle Weir and artist Amber Padilla, a reboot of the Frances Hodgson Burnett 1911 classic, The Secret Garden, is a great example of the recent trend of retelling old tales through a modern lens. Contemporary stories are of course written in the time in which they exist so any retelling should fairly and rightly reflect the view outside your window, or in this case, rooftop. And when you’re in a modern-day Manhattan instead of Yorkshire Moors at the turn of the 20th century, well, things have changed.

But besides a small mixed-media approach, the book leans into a more timeless appeal, even having Mary leave behind the “girl in the digital bubble” routine for museums, print books, no gaming, and of course, gardening. This is not only practical, but entirely the point, as Mary is in desperate need of un-complicating her life and forming human connections, really for the first time. The graphic novel approach alone is of course a favorable approach to not only the content, but the age group as well. In the same way middle grade books rely on a child’s sense of wonder and self-discovery, so too does The Garden on 81st Street, oh, and empathy, lots and lots of empathy.

I very much appreciated how Weir didn’t feel the need to fix what isn’t broken as many of the original beats and rhythms of the original story are present. The direction of this novel will feel familiar if you know the source material at all, and if you don’t, a quick google search will tell you all you need to know. The messaging of course is mostly centered on grief, and how different people deal with loss differently. Some, like Mary, internalize it and refuse to give it oxygen, which is of course not the healthiest approach, but that’s a lesson you don’t learn until you’ve lost someone or something. For others like Colin, it manifests itself into panic attacks and bouts of anxiety that keep him disconnected from society, literally and figuratively. Again, these are children experiencing tremendous loss for the first time in their lives, and we’d do well to remember that there’s no right or wrong here, it’s a learning opportunity for all involved.

These instances of mental anguish, or more importantly how to recognize them, are the books strongest moments as Mary is learning that some wounds aren’t always visible. A good message to be sure and one that Weir delivers thoughtfully and with purpose. It’s also the strongest example of Weir’s language and Padilla’s art working in tandem to deliver the most impact, besides the final few pages of course which should come with a high emotion alert. Speaking of which, the illustrations by Padilla are uncomplicated but not unsophisticated, in fact, I found myself relishing in the little things, the little details that make characters like Mary jump off the page. The scarf she wears to bed as part of her curly hair sleep routine, Mrs. Medlock’s wonderfully huge red glasses, and Colin’s different pajama prints. The panels of course are mostly symmetrical and easy to follow along, and the dialogue is unfussy and to the point. All this adds up to a perfectly comfortable and manageable read for the book’s target audience, although I would argue, adults could learn a thing or two as well.

It’s a retelling so the book has a certain degree of predictability to it, but that doesn’t lessen or cheapen the end result here. Weir changes just enough to make this old story feel fresh and anew, and the New York City nerds will appreciate the love on display for their city and boroughs. Whether it’s Mary learning about the miracle that are Bodega’s, or the dizzying amounts of location specific venues as Mary takes in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city, it’s tourism run amuck! This says nothing of course of having a 10-year-old roam around the city by herself, but, without brave exploration, there’s no discovery.

To sum it up it two words…utterly delightful.

The Secret Garden on 81st Street is out now, click HERE to order a copy today!

Hi! I’m Amber Padilla, a cartoonist, and illustrator located in Oakland, CA. When I’m not making comics you can usually find me doing some sort of craft, but it’s crochet that has the biggest place in my heart right now. When I’m not drawing or crafting I’m either hanging out with my husband, tormenting my cat with kisses or Zooming with my friends and family.


Hi, I’m Ivy Noelle! I’m an award-winning comic book writer, librarian, and publishing professional. I write comics and prose for all ages. I’m the author of The Secret Garden on 81st Street, the co-creator of the Dwayne McDuffie Award-winning graphic novel Archival Quality and have written for series like Bountiful Garden  and anthologies like Dead Beats.

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