Melissa Harrison – she of At Hawthorn Time and The Stubborn Light of Things, amongst others – has written a children’s book – in fact, she’s written two (this is merely part one, part two follows later in the summer) that reimagines B.B.’s classic The Little Grey Men books (which are, we are sad to say, unknown to us).
We are introduced to three Hidden Folk, Moss, the youngest, Burnet, a rough and ready sort, and Cumulus, an ageing Catweazle figure, all of whom live (and have lived, for many years) in the base of a tree that is now at the end of a garden. From the get go, you know something is going to come along and upset the applecart and so it does – the tree is devastated by a storm and Cumulus… well, Cumulus starts to disappear.
The three of them go on a quest to visit far flung relatives who hopefully know what is going on vis-a-vis the whole disappearing thing and along the way they are helped and hindered by owls and deer and pigeons and cats and roads. As you’d expect from a writer of Harrison’s calibre, the writing is sumptuous and you’ll frequently find the words springing forth like a verdant hedgerow:
“The water crowfoot that streamed green in the Folly’s current put out tiny white flowers like a constellation of stars, daisies and dandelions bloomed amid the thick, lush grass, bindweed coiled like miniature vines up the stem of taller weeds and unfurled pink-and-white flowers like trumpets…”
But there is more to By Ash, Oak and Thorn than Melissa Harrison trying her hand at a children’s book. There is a sensibility here, and an important sensibility at that. As I was reading, Harrison repeatedly made subtle points about the way we choose to live, and how we could choose to live better, in a way that had me thinking: I’d want my children to be picking up these kinds of signals from the books they were reading.
Example. Cumulus and Barnet can be a bit prickly with one another at times. After one such falling out, they make up and have a bit of a hug:
“Watching them, Moss’s heart felt full: what a fine thing it was to have friends who were so kind and honest, and to know that it was all right to have wobbly feelings now and then.”
All very nice, you might think. But she goes further. They chance across a rat at one point and one of their party has an instinctive dislike of rats because they’re “all evil”.
“…it’s silly to dislike a whole group of creatures, because within a group all the individuals will be different – like we three are different from each other.”
Pleas for tolerance and understanding! More of this kind of thing in the world please. Harrison is also adept at casting a disapproving eye in the direction of the reader (or perhaps the reader’s parents) who go about their business without looking at the world that goes on around them. This is a book for ‘noticing people’. Or a book that should hopefully encourage a new generation of ‘noticing people’. All of which feels like a supremely good thing.
Any Cop?: Our appetite is whetted. Roll on the publication of By Rowan and Yew later in the year!