The Kingdom of Childhood

The Kingdom of Childhood

3.6 27
by Rebecca Coleman

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The Kingdom of Childhood is the story of a boy and a woman: sixteen-year-old Zach Patterson, uprooted and struggling to reconcile his knowledge of his mother's extramarital affair, and Judy McFarland, a kindergarten teacher watching her family unravel before her eyes. Thrown together to organize a fundraiser for their failing private school and…  See more details below


The Kingdom of Childhood is the story of a boy and a woman: sixteen-year-old Zach Patterson, uprooted and struggling to reconcile his knowledge of his mother's extramarital affair, and Judy McFarland, a kindergarten teacher watching her family unravel before her eyes. Thrown together to organize a fundraiser for their failing private school and bonded by loneliness, they begin an affair that at first thrills, then corrupts each of them. Judy sees in Zach the elements of a young man she loved as a child, but what Zach does not realize is that their relationship is—for Judy—only the latest in a lifetime of disturbing secrets.

Rebecca Coleman's manuscript for The Kingdom of Childhood was a semifinalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition. An emotionally tense, increasingly chilling work of fiction set in the controversial Waldorf school community, it is equal parts enchanting and unsettling and is sure to be a much-discussed and much-debated novel.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Coleman (Desperado City) creates a stark psychological drama in this charged story of a sexual relationship between a teacher and an underage student. Suburban Maryland 40-something Judy McFarland is married to "a cranky old asshole," dotes on her high school senior son, and teaches kindergarten at the humanistic-oriented Sylvania Waldorf School, where she supervises 16-year-old Zach Patterson as he fulfills his service hours requirement at the school's woodworking shop. Soon Judy embarks on a tryst with the compliant Zach, and as thoughts of the potential legal consequences of their clandestine relationship weigh on her, Judy comes unhinged and her sexual predations growmore pathetic, even brutish. Meanwhile, flashbacks fill in Judy's childhood spent in Germany, where early traumas—unwell mother, philandering father—took root, though it's unclear whether these are intended to justify or illuminate. As Judy's life barrels toward a dark end, it becomes a chore for the reader to remain sympathetic to her increasingly drastic plight. It's dark, fast-moving, and, for the most part, nicely creepy with a solid noirish vibe, though Judy's transition from a Mrs. Robinson figure to something much more maniacal is a bit of a stretch. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"Wow, what a book! The story just spirals and I completely got caught up in the madness."—Carol Fitzgerald, BookReporter

"From start to finish, The Kingdom of Childhood kept me riveted....Coleman is a gifted storyteller with the ability to breathe life into characters so real I felt bereft saying goodbye to them at the end. Watch out, world: Rebecca Coleman is here to stay."

-Elizabeth Flock, New York Times bestselling author of Me & Emma

"The Kingdom of Childhood is a dark tale of sexual obsession gone awry. Coleman never flinches in revealing the disturbing secrets of the neighbors just down the street. A gripping tale."
-Keith Donohue, national bestselling author of The Stolen Child

"Ms. Coleman tells the edgy story of Judy McFarland with an exquisite use of language. The meshing of the past with the present, good with bad...turned what could have been 'just another novel' into art. The experience was stunning."
-Ann Hite, author of Ghost on Black Mountain

Library Journal
Immersed in the educational philosophy of her Waldorf school, teacher Judy McFarland spends her days preserving the innocence of her kindergartners while yearning to recapture her idyllic childhood in Germany. In her attempts to return to her youth, Judy begins an affair with Zach, a 16-year-old student at her school. As Judy and Zach are drawn into inescapable sexual obsession, Zach finds himself growing up too fast, while Judy is liberated and consumed by their relationship, on the brink of madness. Told in Judy's and Zach's voices, as well as secrets-revealing flashbacks, the narrative divulges that sometimes in trying to relive the innocence of childhood we destroy everything. VERDICT Coleman's debut novel is a disturbing yet enthralling read that attempts to illustrate why a teacher might decide to begin a sexual relationship with a student. Recommended for fans of Jodi Picoult's realistic, ethics-driven novels, as well as book clubs looking for interesting debate. With a reading group guide.—Katie Lawrence, Chicago

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Sylvania, Maryland

I suppose in the beginning it was a love story. The school into which I had wandered, following my midwife's directions to sign up for a natural-childbirth class held there in the evenings, was a fairy-tale cottage of apricot walls and cabinetry built from knotty pine. In the kindergarten room, knitted dolls waited in a line beneath a large bright window; wooden fish, painted in pale washes of color, leaped from a swirl of blue silk arranged on a shelf. At the center of it all sat a lantern, nestled among the seashells and pine cones strewn on a small table. Its blue overlay was decorated with the silhouette of a young girl with her skirt held out, catching in it the stars that fell like coins from the sky. I knew it was a scene from a fairy tale, one I had heard many years before on the other side of the ocean. I remembered many stories from that place and that time, but this one was notable in that it ended in happiness and not horror.

The teacher who found me standing loose-jawed in her room, one hand on my burgeoning belly and the other on my hip, did not need to ask me if I had ever been in a Waldorf school before. The answer was obvious enough from my gaze of uninhibited wonder, and as I was soon to learn, every aspect of the Waldorf life is meant to inspire that feeling which rose in me very naturally, as though I were a tired pioneer stumbling into a lush valley and suddenly declaring, "This is the place." I didn't question why that room pulled at me so intensely, because as soon as I walked in, I knew: it reminded me of the school I had attended as a child in Germany, with shiny leaves of ivy hanging like garlands above the windows, a guitar beside the teacher's desk, and the tables outfitted with wooden boxes of beeswax crayons in colors so hard and bright that they carried an elemental cheer. The boxes contained many colors, but not black. Black was not allowed. I received this information like a coded phrase: here we have your German childhood, and we have removed the black crayon.

Now, nineteen years later, I had shepherded hundreds of kindergartners through their introduction to our brand of wonder, watercolors and the occasional case of ringworm. The baby traveling upside-down in my womb that day, blissfully ignorant of her mother's budding fanaticism—my daughter Maggie—had attended Waldorf clear through to college. Scott, my son, was in his final year of high school, and he was finishing up not a moment too soon. The school year had only just begun, and already my boss, Dan Beckett, had opened our Monday-morning staff meeting with an announcement that Sylvania Waldorf School was financially insolvent and might go under at any moment. This was a regular weekly feature during the previous year, and so that morning I sat at a student desk listening to him in respectful silence, toying with my earring and musing idly on the erotic dream I'd had about him the night before. My love affair with Waldorf was still alive in my soul, but until the new boss arrived it had never occurred to me that it might be consummated.

If I was distracted that day, a reasonable person could hardly blame me. By lunchtime I had dealt with two potty accidents and one black eye on a scrappy student who, quite honestly, had it coming. In the afternoon I sent home a child showing symptoms of measles to two panicky parents suddenly reconsidering their commitment to holistic medicine. Now, at long last, my mug of coffee and I made our way down the covered walkway that connected the Upper and Lower Schools. My son Scott's choir practice was almost over, and with that I would finally be able to go home and crawl into bed under a pile of duvets. Hopefully the oxygen deprivation would knock me out quickly.

Rounding the corner to the multipurpose room, I felt a bit more relaxed just to hear the beatific voices of my son and his choirmates. The madrigal choir was by invitation only, and sang, for the most part, medieval and Renaissance songs a capella. Scott, a senior, had a fine voice but no particular love of music. He stayed in Madrigals because the school required an extracurricular and he found the other options, in a word, "lame."

As I slipped in the back door I spotted the small group clustered on the risers at one side of the stage. Drawing closer, I could pick out Scott's voice in the baritone section. They sang The Holly and the Ivy in preparation, I assumed, for the Advent Spiral ceremony around the holidays. They were certainly getting an early start.

I sat in a folding chair and sipped my coffee. As their teacher issued a few parting instructions and the group dispersed, Scott meandered toward me with two other young men in tow: Temple, the quiet boy with whom he had been friends since first grade, and another one I did not recognize. Hitchhikers, I predicted.

"Hey, Mom," Scott said. "Do you mind giving a couple people a ride home?"

The trio lagged behind me on the way out to the parking lot, with one of them—the extra one, from his voice—singing a potty-mouthed parody of The Holly and the Ivy to the delight of his friends. By the time they piled into the back of the Volvo, the conversation had reverted to the two-syllable monotone of teenage boys.

"Who lives closest?" I asked, turning out of the parking lot.

"I do," said the crude one. "Left on Crescent, right on Lakeside, follow it down."

I turned up the radio and tried to think ahead to my evening, rather than backward to the terrible day, without much success. Three of my students, now, were out with the measles, with a fourth case likely in the works. At any other school this would be a cause for alarm, but many of the parents in our school community had reservations about immunizing their children, and as a result we had periodic outbreaks of arcane diseases. Although the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the originator of our school's philosophy, supported some of these ideas, I did not share their view. I had thought myself a rebel to society at large when I joined the Waldorf School movement, yet once inside the community I chafed just as often, but kept my dissents secret. I vaccinated my children, circumcised my son. I owned not one but two televisions. I ate plastic-wrapped American cheese.

The voice of the new boy rose from the backseat. "Monica Lewinsky walks into a dry cleaner who's a little hard of hearing."

Scott's enthusiasm was immediate. "Ooh, Temple, have you heard this one?"


"Monica says, 'I've got another dress for you to clean.' The dry cleaner says, 'Come again?' and Monica says, 'No, it's mustard.'"

Scott and Temple dissolved into laughter. I glanced into the rearview mirror and caught the gaze of the boy, his broad grin conveying pride at his own joke. Black hair, razor-cut at the edges, mostly hid one of his eyes, but the other sparkled with mischief. I raised my eyebrows at him in the mirror.

"Not a good joke for mixed company," I said.

"Sorry, Mrs. McFarland," he replied with great insincerity.

"Yeah, Zach," Scott added, clearly gleeful at the chance to gang up on his friend. "Don't talk to my mom like that. What's your problem?"

Muted thuds ensued, the sound of punches being thrown. When I came to a stop at a traffic light I turned around and barked, "Knock it off!"

Temple, in the middle seat between the two, looked relieved as Scott and his friend quickly straightened up. After years of being a double authority over Scott's buddies—both parent and teacher—I was not shy about correcting them. I looked the black-haired one in the eye again and demanded, "How old are you?"


"Then please act like it. I don't mind giving you a ride home, but I will if you all act like a bunch of wild animals."

"Green light," said Scott. As I turned around he mumbled, "Zach, you wild animal, you."

"That's what your mom said," Zach retorted, sotto voce. As they convulsed with suppressed giggles, I propped my elbow against the window ledge, rested my head in my hand, and sighed deeply. In addition to the pile of duvets, a glass of wine might be nice. Or two.

My erotic dreams about my boss began not long after he arrived on the job from a large, flourishing Waldorf school in the Bay Area. With an overgrown mop of thick dishwater-blond hair and icicle-blue eyes like a husky's, he was reasonably good-looking, if young, and not a bad candidate for a subconscious fantasy. But Dan Beckett was only one of many. Since my husband had exchanged his libido for entrance into his Ph.D program three years before—or so it seemed—I'd begun dreaming about random men in bizarre situations, as though my mind, in its deprived state, grabbed whatever scattered ideas were available and smashed them together. This was comical when it involved my neighbor's landscaping guy or my former physics professor, but problematic when my coworkers or a kindergartner's father stepped in—or both, as in the case of Dan, whose son Aidan was in my class. Facing these men afterward, I couldn't help feeling as though we were all conspiring to keep the affair under wraps. Dreams had this effect on me: I knew where they ended and reality began, but they tended to bring ideas into an area where the circles overlapped, making the absurd seem more feasible.

And so after a glass of red wine and a chin-deep hot bath foaming with Weleda's lavender bathing milk, I had drifted off into a slumber that ended in an awkward, boss-induced dream hangover. At least this time I had managed a full night's sleep. Sometimes the incubus awoke me, memorably but inconveniently, at 3:00 a.m.

As I went off to work the next morning, I made a mental note to avoid the front office. With luck, I would make it all the way until dismissal time without encountering Dan.

"Oh ho ho, what do I see?" I sang to the small people clustered at my sides. "Has a gnome come looking for me?"

The children peered at the classroom before them. A moment ago they had been outdoors, digging in the sand and playing on the cooperative swing, racing along a line of tree stumps. Now they had returned to find an amber playsilk square strewn on the floor and a piece of driftwood from the nature table upset beside it. Disorder was always the work of gnomes.

"Oh ho ho, they come and go," the children sang back, "quickly as the wind does blow."

I smiled and sank to my haunches to speak to the children at eye level. "In a few moments our mothers and fathers will be here. Let's clean up the mess this naughty gnome has made and then have our puppet play."

The children got to work. I felt anxious to draw the workday to a close, for it was Friday and the weekend held great promise. My husband and I would be celebrating our anniversary at Fallon, a bed-and-breakfast in the Blue Ridge Mountains which we'd first visited long ago, before even Maggie had been born. Given that I'd barely seen the man since he began his doctoral dissertation on sustainable aqua-culture, and despite the fact he'd been hopelessly surly since then, I anticipated the trip as if it were a first date. I needed this weekend with Russ, if only to refocus my mind from the ever-growing list of men my subconscious was plundering.

But until then, I had work to do. I led the puppet play and the afternoon verse, rang the small brass bell three times, and sent the children off one by one with their parents. Each time the classroom door opened, I caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar black-haired woman, unquestionably pregnant, standing in the hallway chatting with the headmaster. Most likely she was the mother of a prospective student, and my romantic weekend would need to be put on hold for a few more minutes while I schmoozed her.

After all the children but Aidan were gone, I shook her hand in the hallway and invited her into my classroom. She wore a scarf stylishly tied in her long hair and the sort of kid-leather Mary Janes popular with the yoga crowd. I guessed her age to be in the middle thirties, possibly younger, but her muted Asian features threw off my guesswork. Dan sidled up beside her, his face plastered with his beatific pastor smile. I blinked away a snapshot memory of him sneering and dripping with sweat, stark naked.

"Judy, this is Vivienne Heath," he said, and I imitated his smile. "She's volunteered her son to help you with the Christmas bazaar. He needs to earn some service hours, so I thought, why not give Judy a hand?"

Indeed. The last thing I needed was a Boy Scout to supervise while I attended to my annual frenzy of unappreciated volunteer work for my employer. In an exulting voice I said, "Wonderful."

"We just moved here from New Hampshire," she explained. "He's building a playhouse to auction as a project for his woodworking class, but he'll need more hours than that. He's very creative. I'm sure he'll work hard for you, although he might need a little refresher about some of the crafts."

I nodded and tried to mask my surprise. Woodworking was an eleventh-grade subject. I realized she must be considerably older than I had guessed. Yet here she was, about to have another baby. Better her than me, I thought. I was ready for a second shot at a lot of things in life, but mothering a newborn was not one of them.

"If you want to talk crafts, Judy's your woman," Dan told her, and patted me on the shoulder. I stiffened. "She can probably spin straw into gold."

Vivienne grinned. "Is that a course at the Steiner teachers' college?"

I twitched my shoulder out from his grasp. "If it was, he'd have me locked in the workshop right about now."

He laughed, and I watched Vivienne Heath's gaze shift from me to my boss and back again. Dan always upped his show of goodwill and camaraderie around me to compensate for the fact that we hated each other. Upon his arrival the previous year, it had quickly become clear that he thought I was a dinosaur excavated from Woodstock; I disdained him for being a bourgeois bohemian. The ideological tension ran deep even before I began having vivid dreams of coupling with him. Whatever uptight vibe Vivienne was observing could have come from either source.

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The Kingdom of Childhood 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
Kelli Sobolik More than 1 year ago
I think the two reviews below need to be less descriptive.from reading those reviews i dont need to read the book.theres a difference between recommending a book and giving away all the surprises.harstan is notorious for doing this.will read this book but can wait until i get a deal on it
Zuane Carner More than 1 year ago
Why summarize the book when all the readers should be doing is giving their thoughts on it?? Leave us all with the element of surprise and let us enjoy the book. Quit spoiling it for the rest of us.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1998 in Sylvania, Maryland, fortyish Bavarian expatriate Judy McFarland diligently teaches kindergarten as she has for nineteen years at the Waldorf School. Judy misses her childhood in Germany though she tries to ignore her mom's health and her dad's womanizing; she also hates her husband an ancient A-hole who possesses less intellect than her students. Her light in her dark existence is son who is a high school senior. This year she mentors sixteen years old Zach Patterson as he completes his required service hours. Although she knows she should not as she understands the consequences of an illegal tryst with her student including being a social pariah as a sex offender, Judy seduces Zach. They begin an affair but with each clandestine meeting, her fears of exposure grows until they become crippling; yet even with her peers cautioning her to put more distance between her and Zach she cannot end her self and family destruction. Zach begins to realize the cost of the actual fulfillment of his sexual fantasies is the loss of teen innocence but he too cannot say no to his teacher. The Kingdom of Childhood is a stark psychological thriller that rotates the perspective between the sex partners as each transition from the pre-tryst to the climax. Zach goes from clumsy innocence to gilded adulthood too quickly; Judy is more fascinating as she goes from sex predator to insane predator. Although her childhood traumas that apparently made the adult lack development so are tenuous, readers will want to follow the devoted teacher's obsessively driven descent into hell. Harriet Klausner
Nicole Fagala More than 1 year ago
I agree with the previous poster. I have learned to avoid previously named reviewer because I want to know if a book is good not a dissertation on the entire plot of the book. I have had several books reveiled unnecessarily so i have learned to avoid certian review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An engrossing, dark fairytale. I must have re-read this book six times.
BeeInk More than 1 year ago
I was reluctant to read this book given the subject matter, but was pulled immediately into the book. A great story with so many layers of intrigue and dysfunction. The author handles the subject beautifully giving just enough information without being too graphic. The characters, school and setting are aptly described as the story is told in current events and through memories. I definitely recommend this book.
KAREN FIRICANO More than 1 year ago
This book was compared to those of Jodi Piccoult, of whom I am a huge fan, not even close to one of Jodi's.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I've read in awhile. Beautifully written and captivating till the end. Delightfully twisted and thought provoking.
dayzd89 More than 1 year ago
I'll have to be honest with this review. The Kingdom Of Childhood was an extremely creepy yet haunting story that really blew me away. The plot is so intense and convoluted, it had me dreading to turn the next page yet wanting to know more at the same time. It was very well written and filled with beautiful imagery that contrasted against the dark plot. I commend Rebecca Coleman for writing characters that are so distinct and well described. Her characterization was on point and I found myself picturing these characters so well, it left little to the imagination. The characters in this novel really drove the story, and I love it when writers use this technique. I think it really worked well for The Kingdom Of Childhood, especially when characters clashed against each other. I also love the reality of this novel. Rebecca Coleman isn't writing a fairytale here, even though the title sounds so innocent. Not every single relationship on Earth ends in 'happily ever after'. Unfortunately, a lot of relationships are toxic. I'd say that almost all of Judy's relationships end up turning sour by the end of the book. All of her connections are destroyed once the story is over. Zach, on the other hand, sees new or reestablished connections bloom. Even though Judy had her personal demons, I still felt disgusted at her actions and thought process. She was extremely selfish, and reminded me of my own toxic relationships in the past. Throughout the second half of the novel, I can literally hear her screaming 'me, me, me, it's all about me'. I empathized with Zach, who was the real victim here and found himself trapped in a relationship where he couldn't cut the cord. I found myself appalled by her behavior and choice of words many times. The one grip I have with the novel is that I found it to be too wordy at times. I felt like a lot of words could have been omitted from the story and I still would have understood what was going on. I say this because at times I found myself becoming distracted from the actual plot because of the overload of detail. However, I still heavily enjoyed the story, and the characters really stood out to me. The Kingdom Of Childhood is an extremely gripping, daunting book that I highly recommend. It is beautiful, sad, and maddening. The switch of point of view between Zach and Judy really propelled the story and made you question the nature of their illicit affair. The flashbacks to Germany also helped explain Judy's intense obsession with Zach. While the ending is an open one, it leaves the reader to wonder what exactly happened next without giving any definite answers.
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To compare her to Jodi Picoult is very misleading. Did not like this book at all. Good sleep aid though.
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Meg-ABookishAffair More than 1 year ago
Judy McFarland is lost and watching her family fall apart. Her husband is fixated on getting his doctorate while thoroughly addicted to prescription drugs. Her daughter is at college and rebelling against her Waldorf school (sort of a liberal, whole family approach to education) upbringing. Her son is on his way to rebelling. In the middle of the turmoil, Judy starts an affair with her son's 16 year old friend, Zach. The Kingdom of Childhood explores this issue from different angles. Judy has had some traumatizing events in her life and admittedly those events do push Judy to take on an affair with Zach but the things that Judy is going through doesn't make it okay that she does what she does (and I think the author gets at that). An interesting aspect of this book is that it looks at the affect that the affair has on Zach, the student. It goes through all of the different phases of what he feels as the affair goes on. Out of the whole story, I think it's him that gets my sympathy. He goes through a lot and at 16, you just aren't really equipped to deal with what he's going through! The way the book is written in itself is very interesting. The book goes back and forth between third person and first person (Judy's) point of view, which really added a sort of ominous feeling to the story. It really serves to pull the reader in!!! This is a book that will be on my mind for a long time!