TITLE: When Marnie Was There
AUTHOR: Joan G. Robinson
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins
RELEASE DATE: 1967
GENRE: Junior Fiction, Fantasy
PAGE COUNT: 286
For a children’s book first published in 1967, When Marnie Was There still feels fresh and magical. For some readers, this was the book they grew up with. For me, this is a book to grow old with.
12-year-old Anna lives with her foster parents in London. She is sent away for her health to a seaside village where she meets a mysterious girl. Marnie is Anna’s first real friend – someone who accepts her for who she is. But Marnie’s life in the beautiful Marsh House is not as perfect as it seems.
Straight away, the mental health aspect surprised me. I love that although When Marnie Was There feels like an old classic, Anna’s story is current and relatable. We hear how Anna feels cut out of the magic circle other children share and uses her “ordinary face” to repel people. Behind this emotionless mask lies a deep well of loss and loneliness. I also want to point out that in both the book and the Studio Ghibli movie, Anna is androgynous. I like that her gender and sexual neutrality prevented the story from being relevant to only one type of audience – she is relatable to boys and girls equally.
But Anna was not interested. Not any more. She knew perfectly well – though she could never have explained it to Mrs Preston – that things like parties and best friends and going to tea with people were fine for everyone else, because everyone else was ‘inside’ – inside some sort of invisible magic circle. But Anna herself was outside – page 10
When Marnie Was There is the first book I’ve read featuring a foster child protagonist. Considering that this book targets young readers, I found Anna a surprisingly layered lens through which to explore a foster child’s experience. She undergoes great character development, most evident through her emotional changes. This book’s overall message is heartwarming and memorable.
Marnie’s background and true identity remain mysteries until the final chapters. I appreciated that even as an adult reader, the story was always one step ahead of me. While some readers will find the dump of exposition at the end annoying, the delivery reminded me again of an old children’s classic – like having a bedtime story read by a parent. I want to forgive this clumsy bit of writing because my overall reading experience was so lovely!
So many adorable details in this book resonate with me: the birds who cry “oh pity me!”, Mrs Preston asking after the funny smell at the Peggs’ house, and poor old Wuntermenny. These details build a beautiful world and add to the emotional depth of the story.
When Marnie Was There reminds me of the way I viewed the world as a child. With the cuteness of a children’s classic, it still delivers fresh perspectives in a memorable way.