With Wishing for Tomorrow, Hilary McKay answers the question that both she and her daughter had after reading Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, "What happened next?" Of course McKay wondered about the life of Sara Crewe and her return to India, but she also wanted to know the stories of the other students at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Girls in London. While Sara Crewe was definitely the main character in A Little Princess, Burnett endowed her minor characters with enough quirks, traits and backstories to make them interesting in their own right. That is exactly what McKay, creator of the creative and crazy Cassons, one of my favorite literary families in which each child is named after a color of paint, the first book in their series being Saffy's Angel, taps into with her sequel Wishing for Tomorrow. McKay does not try to mimic the tone of Burnett's book but instead invites the reader into the inner lives of the characters, bringing light to their hopes and wishes in ways that Burnett does not. McKay's writing is definitely more contemporary, although rich with details from the time period. In many ways, this makes her story feel a bit more comfortable than Burnett's, and might even prove to be more readable for most girls today.
While Wishing for Tomorrow doesn't have the melodrama or tension of A Little Princess and it feels like there is not quite as much at stake for the characters who remain at Miss Minchin's, as you read into the story you realize that there is something important and even urgent at stake for all of the characters, even if it isn't quite as melodramatic as losing and regaining a fortune. The slower pace of Wishing for Tomorrow might be due in part to the fact that McKay chooses Ermengarde, the hapless but well meaning classmate that Sara befriends in A Little Princess, to be the main character. This gives Ermengarde the opportunity to grow the most over the course of the story and develop an inner life that none of the girls save Sara Crewe had in Burnett's book. And, while Ermengarde does not have the rich imaginary life that Sara did, she does have the promise she made to look after eight year old spitfire Lottie as well as an aunt who seems to be the only adult who genuinely takes an interest in her to ensure that her story will be an interesting one. As we learn early on in the book, when Miss Minchin started her seminary she established it in a way that would attract girls with parents who did not want to have much to do with them. This assured that Miss Minchin would be accountable to herself in her decisions and running of her school while also bringing in extra revenue from the girls with detached parents who "handed over their daughters and cheerfully paid extra holiday fees, rather than bring them home again." Because of this sad fact there is much to hope for for each of the girls in Wishing for Tomorrow, the title of which refers indirectly to a wish the Ermengarde makes as she blows out the thirteen candles on a birthday cake that Aunt Eliza has sent her.
Wishing for Tomorrow begins with bit of catching up on the events of A Little Princess through the eyes of Ermengarde, Sara's dearest friend at the seminary who was also a student. Ermengarde is loyally (although halfheartedly) maintaining a correspondence with Sara who, along with Becky, is staying in a coastal town as her benefactor builds his health for a return to India to check on the diamond mines. Forced to write letters home to her father every Sunday, Ermengarde views her task with a grim outlook. However, once she realizes that writing to Sara is a whole different endeavor, in fact, as "easy as breathing, easier than talking," the pages fill up quickly and her mind becomes more peaceful. Ermengarde finds that writing to Sara is like "tidying a cupboard, clearing away the clutter. It was like shedding a heavy cloak. It was like opening a window." In the wake of the drama that Sara brought to the school, Ermengarde and all the girls begin to find ways to "open windows," figuratively and literally. When a new family moves in next door, a boy about Lavinia's age and his academic uncle, Lavinia has a whole new world opened to her when she learns that his three older sisters attend Oxford. Miss Minchin's star pupil who receives special lessons from her, Lavinia soon learns that there is more to the world than Miss Minchin has been teaching her. Under the guise of piano lessons, Lavinia begins to receive tutoring from Tristram's uncle while determinedly taking on more studies on her own. McKay's writing about these pursuits is delightful. Lavinia had recently acquired a "pair of slim steel compasses and discovered angles and circles with undreamed of possibilities. She had met and understood the delicious logic of Latin. All the time Jessica had been talking and playing she has been reading a book that had introduced to her astonished mind the concept of evolution for the very first time." And, once she has this fire set under her, Lavinia even ceases to be the mean girl that she was. She is now a driven and directed girl who has discovered her purpose and potential.
Lavinia's story dovetails nicely with the backstory that McKay creates for Miss Minchin. With two older brothers, Maria Minchin found herself repeatedly denied the opportunities that they received. A bright, although awkward and difficult girl, she was deeply frustrated by her inability to be educated and independent. It is only when her brothers die within the same year that she comes into the money that allows her to start the seminary and acquire a circumscribed selfhood, bringing along her younger sister, Miss Amelia, who serves as a sort of house mother. Deeply shaken by her experiences with Sara Crewe, Miss Minchin is still not herself in Wishing for Tomorrow. Convinced Sara will return to bring final devastation to the life she has built, Miss Minchin sees her at every turn. Actually, she is seeing Sara's old blue cloak that she left behind and which Lottie and Ermengarde have taken to wearing when sneaking out of the house. Lottie sneaks out to spend time with Bosco, the neighbor's cat, and Ermengarde to keep Lottie safe. Besides figuring out how to leave the seminary at will, Lottie also discovers that she enjoys learning and helping the new scullery maid, Alice, with her chores. These episodes are great comic relief and lead, ultimately, to the climactic event of the book. This event brings about a very satisfying ending akin to the happy one from A Little Princess in which we see Sara's sadness and suffering redeemed. In Wishing for Tomorrow, all the students and even Miss Minchin and Miss Amelia themselves are suffering, whether they realize it or not, and Lottie's mistake brings about wonderful consequences for everyone, including the thoughtful and attentive Aunt Eliza. Of course I would recommend Wishing for Tomorrow to any reader who enjoyed A Little Princess but I would also suggest it to readers who like historical fiction, even if they haven't read Burnett's book.