Story Design: The Secret Garden (1911)

Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary

This post may contain spoilers and large images that may compromise slower internet connections. Read at your own discretion.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, The Secret Garden is a beautiful story of a temperamental central character, Mary Lennox, who fixes a family damaged by death, in spite of her own brokenness. Having grown up in a household where the love for reading is heavily patronised, it is one of the first classics I read independently as a child. My youthful interpretation of the book — and later watching the 1993 film adaptation many times — focused on the cultivation of the garden, and its accompanying secrecy. As an adult, the emotional components of the plot became more poignant, and I found myself being able to identify with Mary.

Existing Book Cover Designs

As a designer, I also started to appreciate the how various elements of the story are communicated into a book’s design. Book covers visually divulge pockets of the plot to the reader, and it is not uncommon for various editions of the same book to have certain elements carry through in their cover designs. The ones I’ve seen of The Secret Garden tend to depict any of the following: a robin, a keyhole and/or key, a door, an artistic interpretation of Mary, and the fairly obvious vegetation, to name a few. The following book covers contain quite a few of the previously mentioned elements.

Story Design: The Secret Garden (1911) Story Design: The Secret Garden (1911)

The above left cover design is a 2008 Puffin Classic relaunch of the novel, with the robin, part of the ivy that conceals the door to the garden, a keyhole, and part of Mary’s face. The above right cover design is drawn by eight-year-old Emma Brink-Morrison, the winner of the Vintage Classics competition to draw cover art to mark the relaunch of a large list of Vintage Classics novels.

Limited Edition Puffin Designer Classic by Lauren Child

Though the book creator produced only a thousand copies of this breath-taking (but sold out) limited edition, it would have made for a wonderful gift for fans of Burnett’s novel. English illustrator and author Lauren Child indulges in incredible amounts of layered detail when crafting this masterpiece of a book design.

Story Design: The Secret Garden (1911)

The cover contains several layers of cut-out branches. In order to feel the element of secrecy in the story, the reader can peel back each cover layer one by one until the base cover reveals Mary and the secret garden. Along the spine, a yellow bookmark has the book’s title in red. For added detail, there is a little black key on its end. The book is printed entirely in green paper.

Cloth-Bound Penguin Classics for Children by Daniela Jalengka Terrazzini

Retail store Anthropologie has placed their magic touch on the classic novel. Rather, London-based artist Daniela Jalengka Terrazzini did, for the store. Using the method of using cloth for book binding, six classics were re-hashed at Terrazzini’s hands, one of them being The Secret Garden.

Story Design: The Secret Garden (1911)

Vibrant and full of detail, Terrazzini extracts basic elements from the plot, such as the robin, the key, and the floral elements that depict parts of the secret garden. An additional element would be the bees flying nearby some of the floral elements, a possible connection with the the presence of vegetation. The design is symmetrical, probably arranged in a way so it also comes off as seamless. The key to the garden, which is one of the central elements of the book, is strategically placed the centre.

In terms of typography, words have been given less influence than the graphics, allowing the reader to identify the book without having to read the title. That is precisely the beauty of works deemed as classics. The literary elements that have been visually depicted from edition to edition — whether it be on the cover or a graphical divider to point out a transition in the plot — become the book’s trademark characteristic. A hundred years after it has been first published, the same elements remain. With her book cover designs, Terrazzini proves the extent of its depth.

(Correction — August 17, 2012: On January 18, 2011, I erroneously wrote that Terrazzini’s book designs were produced through Anthropologie. However, a reader graciously pointed out that they are, in fact, produced by Puffin, and sold through various retail channels, not limited to Anthropologie, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. Thank you, Emily, for detecting the oversight. I apologise for the misinformation.)

Story Design: The Secret Garden (1911)

Book Covers by Ola Pecko

Fine Arts student Ola Pecko designed two gorgeous book cover designs for Burnett’s novel. Both designs look like something characteristic of a Penguin-published books, and look a little similar upon first glance. However, there is a polar difference in the designs.

Story Design: The Secret Garden (1911) Story Design: The Secret Garden (1911)

The above left cover design uses various flowers arranged to form the outline of a keyhole. It is somewhat symmetrical, as evidenced by the light grey banner placed above the central piece. On the other hand, the above right cover design keeps its subject toward the edge. It is definitely more vague and commits less to the common literary elements that have graced the covers of the older editions.

Book Cover by Josh Principe

This cover is by California-based graphic designer Josh Principe. Using only a wash of bright yellow, it is a cover design with incredible detail. The linework is a refreshing contrast to other designs, which tend to take on a softer aesthetic direction.

Story Design: The Secret Garden (1911)

Why I Love The Secret Garden

I’ll be honest. The last time I read The Secret Garden was when I was a child. Since then, I’ve remembered the film adaptation more. However, both the film and the original transcript are loyal to the main character, Mary Lennox.

A girl born into a wealth British household and spent her very early years living in India, Mary repatriates to England to be under the care of her uncle after being orphaned due to a cholera outbreak. While the film adaptation makes adjustments so that the deaths of her parents are attributed to an earthquake, both versions include a glimpse into the process of her repatriation. As an adult third cultured kid, her process of having to adjust to a culture other than the one she is most attached, struck a chord with me. Her temper is painfully familiar.

The concept of numerous layers is constant throughout The Secret Garden. Like the draping ivy over the door to the garden to the garden itself, she reaches out to others who are broken, gradually opening the layers to their identities. Instead of condemning them to the wintery cold of their predicaments, she cultivates their potential. As a result, she fixes herself.

(All images are credited to their respective owners. Click on any image to go to its source.)


  1. Maria Celina

    @Emily: After a quick check, Emily, I’ve made the necessary corrections in my post above. Thank you for your comment, and even more for pointing out that tidbit. You’ve helped me greatly.

  2. Emily

    This is a lovely article. I actually am also interested in the various editions of The Secret Garden, and I have collected several. I would love to have the Lauren Child for Puffin Designer Classics one day.

    I just wanted to point out that the beautiful books designed by Daniela Jalengka Terrazzini were not produced by Anthropologie, but were rather made by Puffin and sold at Anthropologie, as well as Barnes & Noble, on Amazon, and through other retailers.

  3. Maria Celina

    @Ashley: I applaud your comment, Ashley. I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

    @nikz: I do hope that you find the time to read The Secret Garden, Nikz. Unfortunately, classic novels in general have been pushed back and dismissed as outdated literature, but I believe they’ve endured numerous editions and re-launches for the reason that they’re still great pieces of work.

  4. nikz

    Now I’m curious to read the book, as well.
    I love the 3D cover where you have to peel the branches off! Very innovative.
    It must be a relief for book designers to know that they can get a chance at making their own rendition of a book cover :)

  5. Ashley

    I love all of these covers!

    This was one of my all-time favourite children’s books as well. A few years back I took a Children’s Lit course that required me to read many children’s classics. It was right around the time when the 2008 Puffin Classics were released, so the copy I currently own is the 2008 Puffin Classic.

    The Secret Garden is one of those novels that I can’t understand when people say they’ve never read it. It is an essential work of children’s literature!

    In any event, all of the covers shown here are beautiful!

  6. Gillian

    The Lauren Child cover is absolutely stunning, but I think I’d be too afraid of ruining it to even touch it.

    The clothbound Penguin editions are so delightful, but it doesn’t look like there are too many available in the US yet – bummer! Even the Penguin paperbacks are lovely; the second one, where the figure is just barely in the frame, is so strange and eye-catching.

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