By Ash, Oak and Thorn by Melissa Harrison: A Beautiful and Perilous Journey

Whether we live in the countryside or city, we are surrounded by the natural world. All too frequently, we forget to really look at what is actually around us. We also forget the small beings, elements and circumstances that are in play all the time pushing us forward and back against the tide of ‘progress.’ Here’s a new book to take us on this journey. And it is wonderful!

BY ASH, OAK and THORN

author: Melissa Harrison

illustrations: Lauren O’Hara

Cover/interior design: Helen Crawford-White

Chicken House Books (5 May 2021)

ISBN: 9781913322120

One by one, on a bright, early spring morning, three little people no bringer than your hand emerge from their home in the hollow trunk of an old ash tree. Living in the garden at 52 Ash Row, unnoticed by the human residents of the house, they have been there for over 200 cuckoo summers. Moss, Burnet and Cumulus, the Hidden Folk guardians of their patch of natural world usually love spring. But their joy is abruptly shortened when they make an upsetting discovery. The oldest, Cumulus is beginning to fade away. Then, a torrential thunderstorm strikes and their beloved old ash tree home splits in two right to the ground, pushing the three on a journey to find answers. Why is this fading happening and will it happen to them all? Where have the rest of the Hidden Folk gone? And what do all the changes in the natural world mean? Guided by the birds, wild animals and stars, Moss, Burnet and Cumulus set out in search for more of their kind, finding another, Sorrel along the way. But their travels will take them much farther; to the busy, noisy and dangerous Human Hive. There, they uncover more mysteries and learn a surprising history of their own kind….

In a book that nods to classic childrens fare, such as The Little Grey Men by “B.B.” and The Borrowers by Mary Norton, this is a story filled with natural history and wonder. Harrison doesn’t so much create a world as she does show us what it really there; what has always been there, if we have eyes to see. Lovingly painted characters and landscapes expose a world of tiny beings, the overlooked environment of our day-to-day life. As the Hidden Folk consider their own continued existence in the world, they ponder the behaviour of humans; why we do the things we do, what we consider important and everything we miss or ignore in the world. They want to understand why some humans (most usually children) can see and speak to them and others seem to forget. (There is a short, wonderful scene in the beginning when a young child, Ro discovers them and can even speak the language of natures’ creatures, the Wild Argot. Really makes you wonder!)

The incredible travels undertaken by the Hidden Folk is a quest for knowledge, as well as for kinship and comfort. And it takes the reader along with them, as if we are right by their side. It allows us to marvel at everything along the way. The Hidden Folk inspire us to be quizzical, considerate and bold as they are. They have great time for each others’ memories, for in memory sometimes comes the very answer they are looking for, or at least a clue. They are so very resourceful, and while working together, their individual gifts and quirks shine through. Their care and concern for each other, particularly the slowly fading Cumulus is genuinely moving, inspiring their journey in the first place. This considerate side of their nature extends to everyone and everything they meet on their journey, emphasizing a sense of camaraderie and consideration.

By Ash, Oak and Thorn couldn’t be more relevant in today. The story of a disappearing world; a vanishing way of life that echoes the impact of environmental change and a climate in crisis with exquisite writing and poignant understanding.delivery of its’ fascinating, funny, tiny heroes bring to life a gentle, yet action-packed adventure that is tailor-made to fire imagination and curiosity. Inspiring us to walk lightly in the world, begging to be read again and again; By Ash, Oak and Thorn is truly extraordinary. Utterly magical and enthralling; rich in beauty and wildness, a perfect childrens summer read….honestly, it’s just amazing. https://www.chickenhousebooks.com/books/by-ash-oak-and-thorn/

And, I am delighted to add that a sequel is forthcoming! By Rowan and Yew will be released in October 2021 (so, not long to wait.) It continues the travels of the Hidden Folk, returning to their former home in Ash Row to search for the child, Ro, who can see and talk to them…and maybe can help them save Cumulus from fading away forever. The tale begins as autumn arrives in the world, so I’m just going to take a leap of faith and say….I have no doubt this will be the perfect winter childrens book.

Thank you so, so much to Chicken House Books, in particular to Jasmine for sending me the review copy of this most beautiful story.

Happy May and Farewell April (and a selection of my April reading)

Wow! May is here! And April is now a memory. Time moves in fits and starts these days. Blink and you’ll miss it (even if, like me you find some days seem to go on for weeks.) Anyway…I want to wish you all a Happy May and hope you found May Day glorious and joyful.

I won’t lie to you. I’m finding this coming-out-of-lockdown very stressful. Thank goodness for books. In April, I read a lot…a lot a lot. It really helps to escape into other lives and other worlds; other peoples’ gardens while I try to sort out mine. This photo gives you just a taster of the books I have been going through like a mad woman in a library. Some brand new (or not out yet), some old friends…some rereads of books I had discovered and then rediscovered. And I should make note of some of the others that aren’t here….

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (of course…it was April!)

Gold by Geraldine Mills (please, please hunt this down and read it! Wonderful adventure, very thought provoking and extremely timely)

-The new picture book by Chris Haughton; Maybe….

Howard the Average Gecko by Wendy Meddour & Carmen Saldana (4 or 5 times, actually…it’s perfect for soothing the nerves and making smiles appear from nowhere.

-And all the Mouse and Mole books by Joyce Dunbar and James Mayhew (because a new one is due out in just a couple of weeks!)

I go on, but you get the picture. I’m sure I’m forgetting some anyway. If you have a look at the blog posts…and particularly check out the FallenStar Stories Pages, you may find more (and you will find loads of reviews. So please check out the Pages.)

Anyway….I won’t tarry here any longer. I really just want to wish you all a happy and healthy May, as summer creeps in around the edges. (And happy reading!) Here’s another vintage May postcard….I love vintage postcards, don’t you?

Happy Publication Day to Albert Upside Down by Ian Brown and Eoin Clarke

LB Koala heads out to the garden in search of upside down tortoises that may need his help.

Having just come off a Zoom-launch for this lovely new picture book, I want to shout my enthusiasm loudly and say “Happy Book Birthday!!!” to....Albert Upside Down by Ian Brown and Eoin Clarke. Graffeg, Ltd is certainly playing a blinder with its’ publications this year, and this book is so special, for so many reasons.

ALBERT UPSIDE DOWN

author: Ian Brown

illustrator: Eoin Clarke

Graffeg Ltd (27 April 2021)

ISBN: 9781913634162

Albert, the pet tortoise opens his eyes to discover the garden looks rather different…and when he moves his legs, he’s not walking. He’s waving in the air. Oh, dear. Now he remembers. While trying to stretch to reach a tasty treat, Albert slid off the rock. He’s landed upside down. And now, he’s stuck. The other creatures in the garden gather round, all with different ideas about how to right the situation. But if they’re really going to help Albert, they will have to get past their garden rivalry and work together. It’s not going to be easy. But you never know…it might just be the smallest amount of assistance that makes the biggest difference.

Inspired by the adventures of the real-life Albert (who was rescued over 50 years ago and lives with the author) this book is just wonderful! Heart-warming and funny, we get lead down the garden path and into a space populated by the most caring, industrious creatures who overcome their competitive sides to band together, think creatively and help their friend. (Those ants still love to show off a bit, though.) There is that moment clearly demonstrating that every effort to solve a problem counts and sometimes it’s the smallest, quietest effort that creates the perfect solution.

My favourite page…

The illustrations are superb! Expressive, naturalistic, but with a ripple of fantasy and intricate in detail, each page is catches all the movement and action, translating the story into a visual feast of back garden drama. The colours are rich, vibrant and painterly. This works hand-in-hand with the text to pull the reader along at a perfect pace, absorbing the full story and lingering over the pages to find that one little detail that was previously unseen.

Add in a page of tortoise facts (plus an introduction to real-life Albert) and this book is bound to fire further interest in this “modern-day mini-dinosaur living life on the veg” and all of his cousins around the world.

Written with quirky humour and tenderness in equal measure, illustrated in a fascinating, beautiful hand, there is much to intrigue, inspire and delight even the youngest children. Enchanting, charming….simply wonderful. https://graffeg.com/products/albert-upside-down

Thank you to Graffeg, Ltd for supplying me with a review copy of Albert Upside Down; and thank you for a great online launch today! I can’t wait to see what Albert gets up to next!

Blog Tour! Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery by Julia Golding

Welcome to my stop on the Jane Austen Investigates Blog Tour! I am utterly excited to be in the company of all the fantastic bloggers in conversation to celebrate the publication of this wonderful book: Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery. As the title implies, it’s the first of a new series by the outstanding Julia Golding…and what a way to begin!

Julia Golding

When I first picked up a copy of The Diamond of Drury Lane way back in 2006, I immediately became a fan of Julia Golding. She knows how to tell a story; how to create characters and build a mystery around them that immerses her readers in the world she has created. So when I heard that she about to take us into to the world of Jane Austen (of whom I have also always been a firm fan), I jumped at the chance to get a copy of her latest effort. To create a mystery series with young Jane as its protagonist and private investigator… it’s simply genius! Young Jane Austen rivals all of the very best detectives; so clever, so intriguing and such a richly textured late-18th century world.

JANE AUSTEN INVESTIGATES: THE ABBEY MYSTERY

Author: Julia Golding

Lion Hudson Ltd. (23 April 2021)

ISBN: 9781782643340

In 1789, it is certainly true that life as the daughter of a clergyman in rural Hampshire is “disappointingly full of duties.” Making their way home from a visit with one of their fathers’ more tedious parishioners, Cassandra and Jane Austen are looking forward to a summer lacking in excitement and adventure. But all of that changes quickly. A carriage accident forces a change of plans. Thirteen-year-old Jane is sent to act as companion to Lady Cromwell at Southmoor Abbey in place of her older sister, while Lord and Lady Cromwell prepare the eldest sons’ coming-of-age party. Goaded on by her older brother, Henry, Jane vows to solve the centuries-old mystery of the ghostly monk that haunts the Abbey grounds. It seems one vision of the ghost assures certain death. Jane, of course, does not believe in such stories! And she will prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that ghosts do not exist.

When she arrives, Jane discovers there is more mystery than the ghost of a mad monk. A stable boy, Luke with exceptional and unappreciated engineering talents and an Indian servant girl, Deepti with hidden, unique abilities and big dreams worth fighting for soon join Jane in her eerie nighttime investigations. As the day of the celebrations draw near, they are thrown into chaotic events as a hovering lantern lights the ruins, a fire in the library destroys precious family documents, two prize horses are kidnapped with no trail to be found and a new-found friend, Fitzwilliam stands accused of nefarious deeds. With her notebook in hand and her faithful dog, Grandison by her side, Jane wages a secretive battle with preconceived notions and strict social guidelines to uncover the truth…but will she reveal all in time?

With all the charm and insight of the original Austen novels, and all the excitement and drama of a historical mystery, this is a delight! Here we have a plucky, bold young Jane displaying the skills that will lead her on to become a famous, beloved author and honing practical reporting and investigative tools to expose a fraudulent (perhaps) ghost and a deep-seated secret held within the Cromwell family; one that threatens to overturn generations of social standing. There is great attention to detail as Janes’ observation of fashion, food and family life weave their way through this story. With each new character that enters the story filling out the sense of society in the period, Golding offers a glimmer of Austens’ critique of the social constructs of the time. Turning these observations to the solving of mystery is absolute genius! With all the social morés of the time well intact and while honouring the historical nature of the tale, this book has a surprisingly contemporary feel in the writing. Janes’ character is conscientious, quirky, clever and determined. The allies she draws around her as she ventures forth on her night time sleuthing, are brilliantly cast, bringing unique and unusual skills to the art of detection. And the painting of the villains, their notions and deeds lead on to surprising twists and turns that keep you riveted to the page. Janes’ letters home to Cassandra, written as coded messages to keep her sister well-informed of all the goings-on add a wonderful, true-to-character element that tease and peak interest. And with the inclusion of plenty “Easter Eggs” seeded into the plot lead to a curiosity (and perhaps your own investigations?) about the original Jane Austen books.

While The Abbey Mystery is detailed and complex, it is a fast-paced, grabbing the attention and holding on tight. Each description oozes with atmosphere, painting the scenes with pin-point accuracy and unusual insight. As the story builds and the tension mounts, the end hands the reader an unexpected revelation that not only surprises, but delights and entertains. An absolutely gorgeous story soaked in the atmosphere of Austen, her life and her times; thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully imaginative and deliciously mysterious!

I am really looking forward to further Jane Austen Investigates mysteries. The best news in that regard is the second book in the series is due out in October of this year: Jane Austen Investigates: The Burglars’ Ball ! A young Jane Austen takes on the role of detective as she seeks to solve the mysterious happenings at the Abbey House School. It’s not available to pre-order yet, but my name will be first on the list!

Don’t forget to check out all the other fabulous bloggers on the Jane Austen Investigates Blog Tour. Each one is bringing new, thoughtful and exciting perspectives. (If you’re reading this, bloggers, you are all fantastic!)

Huge, huge thanks to Lion Hudson for providing me with a pre-publication review copy, to Fern for all her diligent work on this tour, and to Julia Golding for reappearing on my shelves with such a wondrous book. https://www.lionhudson.com/product/jane-austen-investigates

#JaneAustenInvestigates

An Old Favourite for Earth Day: The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

Happy Earth Day everyone! It promises to be a gorgeous day here in Galway and I hope to spend most of it outside in my own patch, encouraging the green and growing things. But I do like to spend part of the day reading a favourite book or two. And I have gone back to my own childhood (and beyond) with this extraordinary picture book that was quite ahead of its’ time.

The Little House written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton was originally published in 1942 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, which makes it 79 years old. It’s a story about the life and times of a little house. Built strong and well, sitting on top of a hill where she watched the countryside around her, the days and the seasons passing, the man who built her said;

“This Little House shall never be sold for gold or silver and she will live to see our great-great-grandchildrens’ great-great-grandchildren living in her.”

A beautiful dream; a gloriously simple hope. Time does go by, and indeed the Little House was never sold. She sat on her hill and watched all the changes the people of the world bring; farms, then more houses, and roads. Machinery, bigger and bigger buildings; more people and more people and eventually. The air was no longer fresh and clean, the nights were no longer peaceful and she could no longer even see the sky. The Little House became empty and derelict. But, even with her broken windows, she was still well-built and strong, though very sad and lonely. It seemed no one wanted a cozy little home anymore. Until one day….

So, 79 years ago, a charming, poignant book was written for children that addressed the issue of urban sprawl. And addresses it with a voice that is so genuine; so filled with feeling that it is remarkable, even after all these years. Though it must be said, Burton herself denied it was a critique of urban sprawl, stating that instead she wished to convey the sense of the passage of time to young readers. I think it does both very admirably. Yes, it has a quaint, out-of-time feel to it. You wouldn’t mistake this for anything other than a classic. But its’ relevance still shines through. Reading it today, a child (or grown-up, for that matter) will understand how long we have been dealing environmental issues; how long we have been building climate change. In the illustrations, you get a real sense of impact. The personification of the Little House herself, as she stands steadfast, present to it all speaks to us, making us aware of the things we bring to the planet and the effect it has on those who are easily forgotten and set aside. But the ending, when the Little House is remembered and recognised brings a different gift, one that is joyous and within all of us. It allows us to understand that we can make a difference, even if only to one Little House (or person.) We can remember. We can take responsible action. We can care. And everything will be better for all of us.

The Little House is such a joyous, heartfelt and simply beautiful book. You should read it…and share it with the children in your life.

“Virginia Lee Burton (1909-1968) was the talented author and illustrator of some of the most enduring books ever written for children, including the classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Burton included in her books heroes and happy endings, lively illustrations and a dash of nostalgia. She lived with her two sons, Aristides and Michael, and her husband, the sculptor George Demetriod, in a section of Gloucester, Massachusetts, called Folly Cove.” The Little House was the 1943 Caldecott Medal winner.

Taking a Journey to Bigfoot Mountain by Roderick O’Grady

Bigfoot Mountain by Roderick O’Grady; published by Firefly Press

The entire planet is peppered with legends of cryptids; animals whose existence and survival is highly disputed and unproven. And yet, the notions of their presence in our world persist. The one creature that seems to arouse the most attention and inspire endless stories and sightings is that of Bigfoot; Sasquatch; Ape-like homonids that roam the forests secretly, leaving little behind apart from enormous footprints. But surely Bigfoot is just a myth; a story to frighten and fascinate in equal measure. Surely. And yet…

BIGFOOT MOUNTAIN

author: Roderick O’Grady

Firefly Press (29 April 2021)

ISBN: 9781913102418

Nestled high up in her pine tree where the mountains meet the shore of a small inlet of the bay, Minnie sits watching the deep green trees on the far island, wondering if the oncoming thunderstorm would bring another explosive lightning strike. The forest fires had devastated those mountains, and the hope of rain to help put the out was met by the reality of lightning strikes that spurred them on. In the safe little cluster of cabins on her side, where she lives with her stepfather, Dan; grieving the loss of her mother a few months before, there had been no fires…but there was always the threat. Their holiday rental business was suffering…badly. And there was little to do. With her only nearby neighbour and best friend, Billy, Minnie takes to the trails up the mountain, creating games and scrambling around to see what they can see, when the pair discover four giant footprints. Dan says it’s just a hoax, but Minnie thinks she’ knows better and she sets out to prove it.

Kaayii is a young Sasquatch, living with his clan in perfect balance within the mountain forest. They are the guardians of their surroundings, protecting every living thing; bringing understanding and sensitivity to it all, from the trees, to the grassy meadows; the mountain lions and wolves to the smallest natural creatures. To escape the fires that are destroying their home, they are forced to move across the mountain. But the Sasquatch find their ancient paths are blocked by the small cluster of holiday cabins lovingly built by Minnies’ mother, the only place Minnie has ever called home. Then one day, while keeping watch over his new territory, Kaayii spies a young girl, and she badly needs his help. Can Minnie and Kaayii build a new understanding and help their families heal?

What a beautiful book! A story of courage, healing, protecting the natural world and incredible adventure, this book has everything you want. With evocative writing, Bigfoot Mountain conjures up the depth, beauty and nature of these mountains with such power that you can smell the scent of pine wafting on the winds. The description of each creature gives a sense of their being; their strengths, their fragility. The story causes the reader to consider how we, as humans, fit into nature and how our actions can help or hinder. All the characters are painted in such a way that we immediately relate and understand, whether human, bigfoot or animal. We see and feel their dilemmas; their fears, their courage and their joys. Through brave, bold Minnie and all her careful research and examination, it stretches our creative thinking, pushing to question what we know is real and what may be possible. She may have her moments of fear and frustration, but her voice will be heard! And she will make all those around her take action; the right action! All in a book for 8 to 12-year-olds.

And that’s the thing. This is a middle-grade novel. So while it’s all well and good to talk about the “messages” within the story, it needs to be appealing…it needs adventure. And this one certainly has adventure in spades. While all the action takes place in a small area, it expands that space, creating a vision that takes us right in. The intrepid exploration of the mountain trails (by the way, there’s a map! I do love a map!), the unfolding discoveries of the beauty and the danger, the unbelievable encounters…it’s just consuming. There are nail-biting moments and episodes that build to great relief and quiet, powerful joy. Along with the fantastic exploits, this is also the tale of two families; one human, one Bigfoot; finding their way past the tragedies that have befallen them. I actually felt like I was living through this moment in time with these people and all they experience. Adventurous, brave, moving, filled with hope and heart, and totally enthralling; I can whole-heartedly recommend climbing up Bigfoot Mountain.

Thank you so very much to Firefly Press for the proof copy of this stunning book. Excuse me now, I’m off to read it again. https://fireflypress.co.uk/books/bigfoot-mountain/

Paper Lanterns: Issue 4

Paper Lanterns: issue 4 out now!

It’s always so intriguing when I get my hands on a new issue of a literary journal. Paper Lanterns: the Teen and Young Adult Literary Journal was born just as the pandemic swept over the world and to keep it going was no mean feat. (Hats off to you guys!) Over the last tumultuous year, it has become the most anticipated bit of book post that comes through my letter box. There is always something new and different; so much to dip into and consider…the vast majority of which is penned by young writers and illustrators. Poems, short stories, flash fiction, art, photography, book reviews; not to mention the articles and interviews…it packs quite a punch and keeps me occupied for days. And is something that is a joy to go back to time and again.

This new issue, the 4th, turned out to be filled with my favourite genre of writing; fantasy, fairy tales and mythology (quite unintentionally, as Grace and Amy state in the opening editorial.) It moves through daydreams and nighttime rambles into the heart of rich, full fantasy worlds, touching reality as if it were only passing through; each of the offerings of poetry and short stories by young writers evoking feelings that pull you back from day-to-day life, giving a more observational perspective to the rhythm we have fallen into. This is much needed.

Language by Sean Mahon (17) allows a brief space to consider the power of words. Misdirection by Hannah-Rose Sullivan (16) draws us into a haunting world of the theatre. Sanctuary by Ryan Wong (17) offers a tale that is eerie and breath-taking, particularly as it is accompanied by a mesmerising piece of art by Sadhbh Elliot. And Wishin Upon A Moon by Alyson Tait explores a space of memory, love, loneliness, with lyrical language that removes the reader from their immediate surroundings and takes them somewhere only they will know. These are but a few of the excellent, moving, fantastical (on many different levels, in many different spaces) offerings.

Within the Features pages, there are visits with two favourite YA authors, Brigid Kemmerer and Shirley-Anne MacMillan. Shirley-Anne takes us through a day in the life as a YA author in Beyond the Books: Where a Love of YA Can Take You…a brief but fascinating look at….well, a day in the life… And Brigid allows us to briefly explore the landscape of her fabulous Cursebreakers series, set in the world of Emberfall (complete with map…I do love a map.)

But other features really stand out for me, simply because they both touch on two things in literature that never ceases to enthrall and consume my thoughts in literature. Dainy Bernstein expands my thinking in Fighting the Past: Medieval Dragons in Young Adult Literature. This reads like an exposé, if you will, of the many paths dragons have taken and their expression as folklore moves within the realm of social change, attitudes and ideas. Wonderful stuff! Then we have a intriguingly hot topic in YA literature with From Damsel in Distress to Damsel Independent by Aoife E Osborne. That’s right, it’s The Feminist Fairy Tales of YA Literature. If ever there were an indication of radical shift of social ideas and attitudes, it’s this. The echoes of the old faithful fairy tales have never left us from the moment they crept into the world as oral tradition. But, as the living, breathing things they actually are, these stories and all their offspring have grown, changed and taken on the aspects of an ever-shifting society. This is what fairy tales are meant to do. And Aoife explores this idea dynamically, opening up the discussion to really expose how we rewrite and re-consume the notions of the feminine in fairy tales and what it means, how it changes, today. As always, this topic fascinates me no end…and I could go on for hours, but I leave it to you to explore this yourselves. This article is a most excellent place to start….in fact, they both are.

And of course, there are the reviews; great insight into some very exciting, intriguing books that you will want to check out.

I want to thank everyone at Paper Lanterns for sending this wonderful new issue to my door. It’s something very special and I know I’ll spend A LOT of time pouring through the pages. Congratulations to you all for, not just making through this first year, but for going from strength to strength with each issue getting better and better. To everyone else out there, have you picked up Paper Lanterns yet? I really think you should….. it’s available online or in hard copy.

https://paperlanternslit.com/

Garden Inspiration in Kids Books

Newly discovered garden space; day 1 (top) and day 2 (bottom)

Hello! I hope you all had a lovely Easter week. It was very quiet here and I largely ignored everything I should have been doing in favour of a bit of gardening. As I headed to the very back of my small garden to trim away some dead growth, I made a surprising discovery. Those bushes full of brown and brittle branches that I thought were in my patch? Turns out they came from the garden behind me! And once I cleared them away, I discovered a large amount of extra garden space. So…the games begin. This is a very shady space (though I can carefully trim back overhanging greenery to let in more sun…mindful of the wildlife, of course) and will require a bit of negotiation. (First negotiation: the lovely cats who are thinking I am building them a toilet.) And quite a bit of inspiration. It’s never going to be anything other than a cool, green, shady space, so I am going to have to find shade-loving plants and flowers…the goal is a kind of woodland garden. Finding the plants to suit isn’t really a problem. It’s simply the patience and the understanding…as with all gardening.

In seeking inspiration, of course I turn to books…and in turning to books, I (mostly) return to my childhood shelves. It’s not the factual, nonfiction books I am looking for, though there are quite a number of those that are simply marvelous for children and adults. No…not gardening books. What I want is a story. Something to initiate some truly imaginative flights of fancy. And when I looked at my shelves….turns out I don’t have much that would be considered “garden stories”. But what I do have is quite a number of stories that take place in and around gardens; bringing in considerations of the wilder side of things; the wildlife, the way things grow, how things are and what can be brought to it or observed around it and encouraged. Inspiration indeed!

In looking for “garden stories”, the first picture book that popped into my head was The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes (Flying Eye Books, 2015.) This is a beautiful tale of a tiny little gardener whose garden means everything to him. It means food, home and is his joy. He’s not a very good gardener, but he works very, very hard. The trouble is; he’s just too little. The garden gets on top of him and try though he might, working morning, noon and night…it’s just not enough. What he needs is some help. So one night, the little gardener makes a wish….

Since I was seeking garden stories, I turned to Dolores Keveaneys’ picturebooks. All of her picturebooks are full of life and take place in and around the garden and natural world. Her latest, Dee the Bee (Starfish Bay Childrens Books, 2020) visits the garden hero (Dee the Bee) as she flies around from flowers to fruit trees to the veg patch and beyond. It brings an understanding and appreciation of these tiny little titans, without whom most of life and certainly all of the gardens and plants around us just wouldn’t exist. But more than that, it is vivid and detailed in its’ depiction of the plants and flowers, how they live and what they need; a real sense of working in cooperation with nature.

Much the same can be said of The King of Tiny Things by Jeanne Willis and Gwen Millward (Puffin, 2010.) But in a completely different voice. Two little girls go to visit their grandparents and have a wonderful adventure camping out in the back garden. They have a most unexpected visitor…the King of Tiny Things. He shows them all the creepy-crawlies, the bugs, the grubs and all the tiny things that bring magic to the night, the garden and the world in general. This one helps me, as a grown-up, stay mindful of what I am doing in the garden…and truth be told, I prefer my garden to be a bit messy, unkempt and filled with the wildness of tiny things.

Leaving aside the picturebooks and venturing into the world of kids novels, of course I begin with The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I jumped straight into the bit where Mary discovers the secret walled garden at the encouragement of a friendly robin. In truth, much the same can be said of my discovery of this bare, overgrown vacant space in my own garden…so, inspiration! What she discovers is a magical place, but a space that needs the life within carefully encouraged, tended and cared for. (Read closely; there’s a lot of gardening information in there.) In doing so, the garden comes back to vibrant life and changes Mary…or helps her realise her true nature. No longer cross and disagreeable, she emerges resilient, happy and filled with an energy for what could be. Something I certainly need after this last year.

Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker (HarperCollinsChildrensBooks, 2020) may seem an odd choice for a garden-centric book…however, give it some thought. After leaving his grandmothers’ and returning to the city, Ware is forced to attend the dreaded Rec camp for the summer. But on his first day, he meets Jolene; a tough, secretive girl who is planting a garden in the rubble and wreckage of an abandoned church. Ware skips Rec camp altogether and begins to create his fantasy world, a “castle” out of the ruins, while Jolene draws him firmly back to the “Real World” with her own, practical plans. Yes, there is some disillusionment and discouragement. But they triumph and help each other…and keep the garden going even though all seems lost. And THAT speaks to the heart of gardening. Yes, you may fail. But adapt, keep at it. In the end, all will be more than well.

Now…here’s a book that is very close to my heart; Lob by Linda Newbery (Jonathan Cape (PB) 2014.) Lucy spends a lot of her time at her grandparents house in the countryside, helping Grandpa tend his wondrous garden. And for as long as she can remember, she has wanted to catch a glimpse of the mysterious little green man who lives there: Lob. But you have to be very special to see him. Lob is secretive and silent. He is the spirit of green and growing things. Most people believe Lob is just a story that Grandpa Will tells to entertain Lucy. Lucy knows better. But then, a tragedy occurs that shatters Lucys’ world. What will Lob do now? And how will Lucy and Lob ever find each other again? It’s gorgeous…just gorgeous. There is so much about the power of love, belief, growing up, gardens, green spaces and the world around us in this little book intended for 7-10 years olds. It is heart-warming and inspiring. Lobs’ journey after he leaves the cottage-garden takes us across country, down noisy, dirty roads and highways. One bit I particularly love is Lobs’ impression of arriving at the Chelsea Garden Show in London. His astonishment and adaptability at the rapid construction of all these green and growing gardens that spring out of nowhere says something poignant and important about the pace of nature and the patience of the gardener.

“…he knew farming and he new gardening and this wasn’t much like either….farming was slow, and gardening was slow, and slow was the only way it could be. There was a lot of waiting, a lot of sprouting and growing and seeding, all at the proper time. This was all happening at high speed….”

Of course, Lob pitches in and does his bit, making things more natural; because it’s what he does...”their woodland garden looked, almost magically, like real woodland, like a forest you could wander into and get lost…” Magical, indeed!

I could go on and on, but don’t worry. I won’t. Just a bit of advice for all you gardeners out there; or would be gardeners or curious about gardening and nature but need some inspiration. NEVER discount childrens books for gardening. They are simple, clear and packed full of information. And they will create an imaginative, inspirational, soothing space for both children and all the grown-ups in the room. Now, I must get back to the garden. Soil to be turned, plants to be planted, magic to be made…..Happy Gardening to all of you; even if it’s just a pot on the window sill.

Perfect Just As You Are: Howard the Average Gecko

Howard the Average Gecko by Wendy Meddour; illustrated by Carmen Saldana

There’s a lot of pressure to be incredible; to be special and the best. It can be overwhelming. But did you ever stop to think that maybe, just maybe, you’re perfect just as you are?

HOWARD THE AVERAGE GECKO

author: Wendy Meddour

illustrations: Carmen Saldana

Oxford Childrens Books (1 April 2021)

ISBN: 9780192777348

Howard thinks he’s the most exceptional creature in all the rainforest! That’s because no other creature is as exceptionally camouflaged as him. (It’s really a little irritating.) He’s been so busy celebrating his exceptional quality, Howard has forgotten to look around. But then, Howard discovers the rainforest is full of other camouflaged creatures. In fact, they’re everywhere. Oh no! Howard isn’t that exceptional after all! If he’s not exceptional, what is he then? And he begins to wonder…who will love him if he’s just…an average gecko? Fortunately, Howard meets Dolores…

This charming little picturebook takes us on quite a journey. Introducing the important idea that you don’t have to be exceptional; being simply who you are is enough in this quirky, warm and funny story. Howard himself is a wonderful character; happy, free-spirited, naive and excited to make his mark on the world. And it is clear that all he wants is to be loved and admired…like every young child. In the beginning, Howard is exceedingly pleased with himself and absolutely convinced that no one, absolutely no one is as brilliant and wonderful as he, due to his unique camouflaging capabilities. When he discovers that he’s been missing the same quality in others, at first he is devastated. Then, upon meeting someone who doesn’t care that maybe he’s just average, a quiet joy spreads throughout his little gecko heart and all is well. From pride to disappointment to happiness, the cleverly expressive illustrations match the mood of the text as they deftly display the full range of feeling as Howard makes his way to accepting himself as he is, appreciating others along the way. The pictures reveal an extraordinary, rich and brightly coloured glance at rainforest life while maintaining a child-friendly, magical landscape.

And if that’s not enough, the final page talks about camouflage in the animal world; why and how animals use camouflage and asks young readers to have a closer look back through the pages to find the many, many camouflaged creatures there. In doing this, it encourages them to take a closer look at the world around them, like Howard.

The whole book lends emotional support and boosts self-confidence, helping children to reach the understanding that they don’t need to be anything other than what they are; that ‘average’ is okay. Because what they are is simply perfect. It sings this message with joy and delight. Entertaining, humourous, loving and, well…exceptional. I utterly loved it!

Thank you to Oxford Childrens’ Books for sending a review copy of the book! And to Wendy Meddour and Carmen Saldana for creating such a marvelous, exceptional story. https://global.oup.com/education/product/9780192777348/?region=international

Review: Guard Your Heart by Sue Divin

In a haunting new YA love story, Sue Divin speaks of the reality of young people finding their way in post-Good Friday agreement Northern Ireland, where the conflicts of the Troubles may have been laid aside…but the past has long arms.

GUARD YOUR HEART

author: Sue Divin

Macmillan Childrens Books (1 April 2021)

ISBN: 9781529041675

Summer 2016, Derry. Aidan and Iona may live in the same city, but in many ways, they come from places that are worlds apart. Now eighteen, they were both born on the same day; the day of the Northern Ireland peace deal.

Aidan is Catholic, Irish and from a strong Republican family. His ex-political prisoner father has vanished, taking with him his drunken abusive behaviour and, for a while, there was peace in Aidans’ home. But it was short-lived when his mother got sick and died of cancer a couple of years back. Now Aidan has his hopes pinned on his exam results earning him a ticket out of Derry…to anywhere. Aidan wants his own life, away from the shadows and expectations that follow him.

Iona is Protestant and British; with a father and brother in the police service. She has her eyes on Queens’ University in Belfast, has a strong faith and a firm belief that boys without one track minds don’t exist. And she’s determined to carve her own path.

An incident at a post-exam party sends a drunk and drugged-up Aidan out into the streets. Wandering alone across the Peace Bridge and not realising where he is, Aidan is set upon, becoming the victim of a vicious sectarian attack. Iona witnesses the attack, picking up Aidans’ phone and filming the whole thing. If it weren’t for her, his attackers would have finished him for sure. Iona gets in touch with Aidan to return his phone and when the two meet up, alone and on neutral territory, the differences between them and their lives are insurmountable. Both have secrets that must be kept; both have family that will stand in their way. But…there’s something there. Something compelling that pulls them closer together and opens a possibility that neither could have imagined. If only the past would stay in the past…

Deceptively easy to read, this is a book that deals with many issues, some common in the general world and some quite specific to life for young people today in Northern Ireland. Grief, prejudice, violence, family issues and echoes of an unsettled past all act as background to a love story that is haunting and permeated with realism. The portraits of each character are carefully developed in a way that gives quick, yet deep insight into what drives them and the reader sees the world through their eyes with immediate effect. Each person in the book bubbles up around Aidan and Ionas’ story, adding more background, more revelation and more intrigue. Family ties and old wounds want to entrench themselves in their lives. Aidan and Iona are caught in a turmoil that they long to escape for their own reasons, but it’s not that easy. Overcoming these obstacles is as difficult as overcoming the struggles of Northern Irelands’ past. The empathy with which this is developed in the book allows this to bleed out into a wider-world understanding. We can relate.

There are a few issues that are not fully explored and may be glanced over, but to delve deeper would change the story entirely…and probably requires a book of their own for a satisfying exploration. This is Romeo and Juliet; timeless, yet timely. The echoes are inescapable. Star-crossed lovers, family discord, social impropriety, misconstrued influences…yes, we know this story well. And it still moves us, outrages us and gives us pause for thought. The ending leaves you hanging a bit, as you wonder if the past can really be left behind. A striking, emotional, raw and sometimes brutal tale; well-written and very real. It is clear, the author knows her subject well and has the talent to weave it into a beautiful, poignant, thought-provoking book. (YA; 14 yrs.+)

Sue Divin is a Derry based writer and peace worker, originally from Armagh in the North of Ireland. With a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies and a career in Community Relations, her writing often touches on diversity and reconciliation. Her short stories, flash fiction and poetry, have been published in a range of literary journals. Guard Your Heart is her first novel.

https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/sue-divin/guard-your-heart/9781529041682