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When author Karuna Riazi was teaching her eighth-grade class, a student asked, “If you’re ever going to retell a story with a South Asian or Muslim heroine, could you make it The Secret Garden?” A Bit of Earth, which includes prose and poetry, is Riazi’s answer to that request. 

Maria Latif was raised in Pakistan and shuffled from one relative to the next when her parents traveled for their work. When tragedy struck and her parents were killed in a car crash, Maria’s disorientation and loneliness intensified.   

Now Maria wears emotional armor to shield her against the world’s inevitable rejections and the pain of uprootedness. So “being prickly, unpleasant Maria was her thing. It kept adults wary of her. That was what mattered.” 

Maria has no choice when her relatives—of course they want to get rid of her!—decide to send her to the United States to live with the family of her deceased father’s college friend. Though Maria continues to push away the adults in her new setting and exhibits a maddening irritability, she is surprised to find one good thing in her new—temporary, she’s sure—home. From her bedroom window she sees a patch of green and is filled with hope. When she explores the property, she discovers a garden, inaccessible because of a locked gate, but then unlocked with the help of a surprising ally. Maria claims the garden as her own: “This / (unloved / untouched / unclaimed) / bit of earth / would be hers.”  

Riazi skillfully employs the metaphor of the revitalization of the secret garden—debris cleared, seedlings planted, new shoots growing, healthy roots deepening, vivid blooms flowering, and beauty being restored—to explore Maria’s transformation from a wounded, tetchy child to a person who discovers kindness, home, and family.   

Middle-grade readers shaped by Christian worldview will encounter in Maria’s life and culture religious beliefs and practices unlike their own. (Greenwillow Books)


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