When their father lands a new job in South America, thirteen-year-old Beverly King and his younger brother Felix are sent from Toronto to spend a year at the old family homestead in rural Carlisle, Prince Edward Island. It's the first time they've seen the place, but they very shortly feel as though they've lived there always. Rich in both natural beauty and the many traditions and memories of the enormous (and enormously talented, not to say eccentric) King family, it's currently being held down by Uncle Alec, Aunt Janet and their three equally memorable youngsters: smart and snarky Dan, beautiful Felicity and sweet innocent little Cecily.
But the greatest discovery of all is their oldest cousin, fourteen-year-old Sara Stanley, aka the Story Girl. So-called after her extraordinary genius as a storyteller and actress—she's able to quite literally make the multiplication tables fascinating. As it happens she's also a semipermanent guest in the neighborhood, having been dropped off to stay with the kids' Uncle Roger and his sister Olivia at the next farm over while Sara's father, a wannabe artist, wanders Europe.
What follows is a sweet and gently funny series of riffs on the theme of being children and enjoying childhood, soaked in nostalgia for Montgomery's beloved PEI and studded with a number of actual old family and fairy tales as told by the one and only Story Girl. A sequel, The Golden Road, continues the adventures of Sara and her cousins as they begin to make tentative explorations into adulthood.
The TV series is an acclaimed but far from a faithful adaptation, essentially fusing the cast of The Story Girl—notably minus Dan, Beverly and Uncle Roger, and adding a crotchety aunt Hetty—with that of Anne of Green Gables and transposing the setting to Avonlea.
These novels contain examples of:
- Brutal Honesty: Peg Bowen, the neighborhood eccentric, who makes some frank but cruel observations about the children when they take refuge at her home during a blizzard. Later, when the children persuade her to go to church, she keeps interrupting the service with comments about how stuck-up and hypocritical most of the parishioners are.
- Cat Up a Tree: The Story Girl's cat Paddy, living as he does outdoors on a large farm, is often lost, sick or otherwise endangered. He finally uses up his nine lives shortly before the Story Girl finally leaves with her father for Paris.
- Childhood Friend Romance: Felicity and Peter the neighboring hired boy, very gradually.
- Cloud Cuckoolander: How nearly everyone except The Story Girl sees reclusive and deeply unworldly Jasper Dale, known locally as The Awkward Man.
- Dead Guy Junior: Felix and Felicity are both named for deceased relatives.
- Deadpan Snarker: Dan, especially in the service of annoying Felicity.
- Disappeared Dad: Peter's father left when he was three. He returns in The Golden Road.
- The Drifter: The Story Girl's wealthy and talented but somewhat aimless father, Blair Stanley, who spends much of her childhood travelling in Europe. He returns at the end of The Golden Road, however, and makes plans for them both to settle in Paris.
- Door-to-Door Episode: The children call on their neighbors to raise funds for the school library in The Story Girl.
- In The Golden Road Cecily does this to collect money and signatures for her missionary quilt.
- Feminine Women Can Cook: Much is made of Felicity's cooking skills, not least by her admiring young male cousins. Subverted with the Story Girl, however, who despite her best efforts never becomes a good cook. It being the time and place it is, she considers this seriously humiliating.
- Full-Name Basis: Sara Ray is almost always referred to by her full name (another way of distinguishing her from the Story Girl).
- The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Applies to the Story Girl and Felicity even if they are cousins. Despite their constant bickering, the vivid, effervescent Story Girl secretly wishes she were as useful and domestic as Felicity, and unimaginative, conventional Felicity secretly wishes she were as interesting as the Story Girl. (She also is more openly jealous of Sara's expensive clothes.)
- I Am Not Pretty: The Story Girl firmly believes this of herself, and everyone else agrees—especially when contrasting slim, brunette, longish-faced Sara with plump, dimpled, golden-haired Felicity, who's universally acclaimed as a beauty. Reading between the lines, it's clear that—much like another of Montgomery's heroines—Sara's actually extremely attractive, just not as conventionally so.
- Incurable Cough of Death: Cecily develops a mild but ominously persistent cough after being caught out in a snowstorm. the narration eventually makes it clear that she dies, probably of consumption, before reaching adulthood.
- Maiden Aunt: Aunt Olivia, who at all of 29 is seen by the children at least as far too old to ever find a husband, despite her stunning beauty. She does end up getting married in The Golden Road.
- MayDecember Romance: Between The Awkward Man and Alice Reade.
- Missing Mom: The Story Girl's mother is dead, as is Bev and Felix's mother.
- One Steve Limit: Averted and lampshaded by the two Saras, down to the same spelling. The children have corrected this themselves by almost always referring to Sara Stanley as "the Story Girl".
- Parental Abandonment: A mild case of Values Dissonance can lead modern readers to see The Story Girl's wealthy but widowed father as guilty of this. At the time it was considered perfectly natural (if not precisely ideal) for single fathers to leave children in the care of more stable relatives as necessary; nowadays, he comes across much more as having fobbed Sara off solely for the selfish freedom to go travelling.
- Pinball Protagonist: Beverly King, our narrator, and a character so flat that it is possible to make it through the entire first book without noticing his first name. Somehow, Montgomery manages to spin this as a legitimate personality, even poking fun at his status as the Straight Man a few times. By the second book he's acquired a few additional outlines thanks to being the only cousin both old enough and sensitive enough to develop a real friendship with the Story Girl.
- Prone to Tears: Pale, plaintive Sara Ray is crying more often than not. Somewhat understandable given how cold and strict her mother is.
- Scenery Porn: Even the most scholarly dissertations of Montgomery's work concede this as a major theme in all of them.
- Spoiled Sweet: The Story Girl's father has a small fortune, and enjoys spending it on his daughter. She is sometimes a little tactless about parading her expensive and rather showy clothing in front of the other girls, but on the whole is kind-hearted and thoughtful.
- The Storyteller: The titular Story Girl.
- Teen Genius: The Story Girl's extraordinary storytelling and acting skills are noted by virtually everyone. Even the crustiest adults are routinely fascinated by her.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Sweet little innocent Cecily, who grows progressively frailer throughout The Golden Road, perhaps with tuberculosis. Leading to a seriously heartbreaking revelation near the end of the book: the Story Girl is lightheartedly telling her friends' fortunes when she abruptly realizes that Cecily will not live to grow up, which now-adult Bev gently confirms in the narration.
- Victorious Childhood Friend: The Story Girl foretells this for Peter and Felicity.
- Where Are They Now: At the end of The Golden Road, the Story Girl jokingly tells each of her cousins' fortunes, serving as a sort of epilogue for the reader.
- When She Smiles: Poor weepy, nondescript Sara Ray actually looks pretty on the rare occasion when she smiles.
- Wicked Witch: The children think Peg Bowen is one at first, even half-believing she bewitched the cat Paddy. Averted in The Golden Road when she takes them in during a snowstorm and turns out to be eccentric and sharp-tongued but fundamentally decent.
- Wrong Side of the Tracks: Peter, Uncle Roger's hired boy, whose mother works as a washerwoman and whose alcoholic father walked out on them. Like other L.M. Montgomery characters in similar circumstances he is determined to better himself, and in fact, next to the Story Girl, comes across as the most gifted of the children.