Reading level: Middle grades
I lucked into a funny-smelling, plain-covered hardback of When Marnie Was There at a library sale at some point during middle school, and it was love at first page. Anna, an orphan, is sent by her kind-hearted but not-sure-what-to-do-with-her foster mother to stay with some friends who live by the sea.
Anna has never fit in anywhere. She’s never had a friend. And she spends much of her time and energy trying to keep her face blank, so that it’s perfectly clear that she doesn’t want friends anyway. But then she meets Marnie, who’s as lonely as she is and frustratingly mysterious. Anna and Marnie vow to keep their growing friendship a secret from everyone else, but having a real friend is already changing Anna—she forgets to avoid people and keep her expression completely neutral. Then, one day, with no warning, Marnie vanishes, and a big family with lots of children moves into the house on the marsh. To Anna’s great surprise (and despite her initial reluctance), she discovers that being Marnie’s friend has opened the door for her to be friends with other people.
It’s a simple little story with a neat twist that I won’t give away and dreamy, introspective prose that’s really lovely to read. Anyone who’s ever felt on the outside of things (which is really everyone, isn’t it?) will identify with Anna, and like Anna, be captivated by the bewitching, capricious Marnie and by the wild marsh and sea, which become characters themselves. I especially love the little current of sadness that runs through the book, right up to and through the (otherwise happy) ending. Childhood is equal parts happy and sad, finding and losing, delight and sorrow, and I think When Marnie Was There hits that winsome balance just right, so that if you get a little teary at the end (and I do), you’re smiling, too. Highly recommended.
(Summer reading bingo: See the movie adaptation—it’s delightful!—to mark this one off your card.)
AMY SHARONY is the founder and editor-in-chief of home | school | life magazine. She's a pretty nice person until someone starts pluralizing things with apostrophes, but then all bets are off.