100 Unicorns in the Garden

aiken-small.jpgStrange things happen to the Armitages on Mondays. Sometimes there’s a unicorn in the garden, sometimes there are 100. Harriet and Mark, sister and brother, are used to the ghosts, the dragons, the Furies, and so on. Life in their small village, and wacky relatives who come to visit? Much harder to take.

Joan Aiken wrote Armitage Family stories her whole life, and they are a treat.

Aiken was a British writer, most famous for her book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and the sequels in that series. She lived from 1924 to 2004. The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories collect stories written from the very first entry from 1944, “Yes, But Today is Tuesday,” to four stories unpublished at the time of her death, 60 years later.

When Aiken sold that story to the BBC in 1944, it set the template for the stories that followed. As the title indicates, the Armitage family is expecting wacky happenings on Monday, so when a unicorn shows up on Tuesday, they are more worried about the day of the week than the unicorn itself. Mrs. Armitage wants Harriet to finish her porridge first, and Mr. Armitage says they can only ride it once it has been groomed. In the mean time, a policeman arrives to demand the Armitages pay for a unicorn license, which is of course 1000 gold pieces.

That’s when what looks like a storm hits. Not just a storm though: the arrival (via the sky?) of 100 unicorns. The Armitages post a notice and get busy:

Unicorns given away. Quiet to ride or drive.

The rest of the day the Armitages were fully occupied in giving unicorns to all applicants. “It’s worse than trying to get rid of a family of kittens,” said Mrs. Armitage. (8)

aiken-big.jpgA few of the other things that happen to the Armitages, mostly on Mondays, and in much the same gleeful/blase tone as the first story: dragons (more than once), a room that gets switched with another room in a faraway city (a room that comes with a griffin egg), displaced goblins who like to sing and work all night, dealings with the neighbour family (all six inches tall), a storm at sea that strands a big group in a light-house (Mark supplies them with pies by way of rocket delivery), advanced wizardry in the service of getting onto the village caroling choir… and much, much more. The collection contains 24 stories all told. Aiken wrote a prelude explaining why the Armitages were always facing interesting things on Mondays, but I could have done without it. The stories are better when we’re thrown into the situation just like our fearless family members.

The title story refers to an infamous entry in the Armitage series. The serial garden is made out of cardboard cutouts that Mark is assembling, taken from an obscure/ancient cereal box series called Brekkfast Brikks (which taste about how they sound). It turns out to be a magical garden, and Mark makes an interesting discovery when he has accidentally magicked himself into it. In a rather doom-laden bit of foreshadowing, the story starts with an explanation of Mrs. Armitage’s drastic cleaning-up-the-toy-room habits. It’s not Mark who bears the brunt of it though, which makes it worse.

As Aiken’s daughter Lizza Aiken says in her introduction:

It was Joan’s suggestion that this collection be called The Serial Garden, perhaps wishing to alert those readers who were still waiting for the promised “happy ever after” that she had not forgotten them. (vi)

Two other stories follow the life of the wronged character. As Lizza says: “[he] appears in two more stories, and although clearly what has been done cannot be undone, hope is offered for a solution.” (vi)

I wouldn’t recommend trying to read this collection straight through – it’s better in small sips, rather than one huge gulp. It would be perfect for reading to kids, since the stories are all 5-20 pages long. I remember reading at least two of Aiken’s collections when I was younger, but I had never encountered the Armitages before. I’m glad that I have.

The Serial Garden is published by Big Mouth House, but the unfamiliar name has an explanation. From the back cover of the book: “A new imprint of Small Beer Press (perhaps not the best name for a press for younger readers) devoted to fiction for readers of all ages.” Small Beer/Big Mouth have quite a coup on their hands with this Aiken collection as a debut.


James Schellenberg is the Cultural Gutter’s Science Fiction Editor.

Screen Editor Ian Driscoll is on vacation and will return to the Gutter next month.

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