'An Episode of Sparrows' is the second of the current Rumer Godden's that Virago have released as part of their children's fiction series. It was originally published on an adult list but it makes sense as a children's book. It makes me think of 'The Secret Garden' but the way I remember it as a child where it was very much Mary's story rather than as I found it more recently - very much Colin's story.
In this case the lost child is Lovejoy Mason, her mother, a singer of questionable morals and with no noticeable sense of responsibility has fallen on hard times and basically dumped Lovejoy with her landlady, no money, and no forwarding address. The landlady is kind enough but she has her own concerns, a child, especially one as strangely adult as Lovejoy can be is more than she really feels she can cope with. For Lovejoy there's nothing, she has nothing of her own to speak of, no family, and only the kindness, or otherwise, of those around her to rely on.
It's post war London, and whilst the streets are still punctuated by bomb sights I think rationing has ended so I'm guessing the book is set when it was written around 1955. Lovejoy lives on a slightly slumy street that is attached to one of those swish London squares complete with an enclosed central garden. The residents of either are worlds apart rather than yards, though for the residents of the square it's a world of disintegrating privilege.
Everything is sparked off by a fallen packet of cornflower seeds. A very small boy (Sparky) finds the packet but makes the mistake of examining it in plain view - it's promptly grabbed by Lovejoy who becomes obsessed with the idea of growing them, she casts around for a suitable spot to make a garden finally finding a place in an old bomb site. She steals odd seeds from packets in Woolworth's to plant, and steals from the church candle box to buy a trowel and fork. Sparky gets his revenge on Lovejoy - who hates with a passion - when he tells the 13 year old Tip Malone and his gang of feral boys that Lovejoy is appropriating their patch. They may be children but it's dangerous, boys and girls don't much mix and when they do it's very much the worse for the girls. Within minutes the embryo garden is destroyed. For Tip however there is remorse, and so he helps Lovejoy create another garden and that in turn leads to all sorts of problems - and then solutions.
A garden, the joy of watching living things grow, a trio of children who need each other to make sense of an often unfriendly adult world, and a certain amount of faith - these are the things that remind me of 'The Secret Garden' but Godden is a very different sort of writer and what she brings to this is quite distinct from Burnett, in some ways it's more truthful, but it's also a redemptive story with a much wider scope and the result works for adults and children alike. In her preface Godden says the germ of the story came from an actual incident which happened to her not long after she moved back to England in 1945, it took ten years to grow into this novel - it was worth waiting for.