Series Review: Brambly Hedge

Spring is finally beginning to chase away the last chill days of winter, and little imaginations are ripe for exploring stories that satisfy their curiosity about the natural world. To a child the outdoors ought to be a second home; and no place could feel more like home than the world of Brambly Hedge, created by Jill Barklem.

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This classic collection of stories introduces readers to the mice who inhabit cozy Brambly Hedge. The community they have built among the trees and bushes is comfortable and friendly, with warmly detailed illustrations elaborating Barklem’s delightful tales. Through different seasons of the year and celebrations of life, the mice come together with a cheerful hospitality that spans the generations.

The stories follow no single character, but we become acquainted with Miss Poppy Eyebright, Lady Daisy, kindly Mr. Apple, incorrigible young Wilfred, and others as they go about their daily business in the hedge alongside a quiet stream. We are invited into homes with names like Crabapple Cottage and Old Oak Palace, and then into the tunnels and mills where the mice busily and cleverly attend to all their needs. Barklem’s illustrations portray snug dwellings and various means of gathering and storing food, which is of course the primary occupation of everyone in Brambly Hedge. And such food! If mice do enjoy such delicacies as honey creams and sugared violets, I should surely wish to be one.

The pleasant bustle of everyday life is punctuated by the most splendid gatherings as the mice celebrate birthdays, weddings, christenings, balls, and picnics. They have no dread of the passing of time, but mark it with traditions rooted in natural reverence and generosity. Although they address no deity in particular, the mice give thanks, pronounce blessings, and promise to love their spouses for ever and ever with verses that will sound very familiar to the Christian ear; while the affection shared between neighbors and across generations reminds us of the strength of tribal cultures which respect the wisdom of age and show a common concern for raising the young. Even from the first glance these parties are charming spectacles, evoking all that is best about family and society.

Barklem’s attention to detail is striking in every story. She correctly represents every flower, every leaf, every color and plant in its proper season. (When Poppy marries Dusty on Midsummer’s Day, she notes that the primroses are over.) Her additional whimsies: lace pinafores and meadowsweet tea, the workings of the butter mill and the salt pans, are a pure delight. The tales are well-composed and sweet, perfect for reading with someone little on your lap.

The stories are available in several different formats; they can be purchased as individual volumes, assorted boxed sets, and as a single treasury. As the plots do not necessarily build on one another, they can be collected in any order. The separate volumes are small, like the classic Beatrix Potter books, and would be pleasant to give to a little one over a period of time. The boxed sets are available in several different arrangements, containing all of the books or just a few organized by season or theme. The single-volume treasury is the best value; it contains the complete collection, but the book is not too heavy or unwieldy to open over and over again. Its larger storybook style is easy to read and is a particular favorite with my under-seven crowd, who inevitably beg for just one more.

I hope your family finds a home together in Brambly Hedge; I know you will always be welcome there.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Foxwood Treasury by Cynthia and Brian Paterson

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Series Review: The Cobble Street Cousins

Guiding a budding reader into chapter books can be a confusing experience, so finding an appealing series is like striking gold. If this sounds familiar, you might try The Cobble Street Cousins series by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin.

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This series of six short chapter books follows three cousins who live with their lovable Aunt Lucy for a year while their parents tour with the ballet. Tess, Rosie, and Lily have very different talents and interests, but they get up to tremendous fun living together in the attic of Aunt Lucy’s old house. Each book features a creative activity that the girls take on together as they make friends and memories in their temporary home: a cookie-baking business, a community newspaper, and finally, preparations for a very special wedding. The individual stories stand alone but the series arc expands encouragingly on the girls’ relationships with neighbors young and old. It’s hard not to want to go along with the three when they take tea cakes and oranges to visit old Mrs. White.

If these books have a fault, it is perhaps that they are too idyllic. It’s difficult to imagine a community of adults dropping everything to attend a program put on by the new neighborhood kids, or the local nonagenarian taking them all in for sewing lessons. If the three friends struggle with missing their parents or adjusting to their situation, no mention of it is made. And apparently on Cobble Street there is always time for tea and cookies. Unrealistic? Probably. But wouldn’t it be pleasant if the world could be just a little more like that?

Children learn to read at different rates, and they only need the ready-for-chapters level for a short time. But chances are that, even as they strike out with more independence, they are still at an age that values reassurance. Some children who can read beyond their years are frightened by coming-of-age themes like playground bullying or the death of a parent. These issues are real and there is time enough (and plenty of good books) to deal with them. But if you know a child who is eager to read and still has that precious innocence, you may safely trust this series.

These books, so sweetly illustrated with Halperin’s lovely drawings, will resonate primarily with girls from ages six to nine. They are a welcome reprieve from the somewhat sassy heroines who tend to fill the genre, and will beautifully bridge that gap between easy-readers and the joy of children’s chapter books. Just don’t be surprised if your daughter asks to bake cookies for an elderly neighbor.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: The Mandie Collection by Lois Gladys Leppard

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Review: Princess and the Peas

Long, relaxed summer evenings offer an ideal opportunity to spend quality time with children in the kitchen. If you need some inspiration for sharing your culinary skills with the kids, start with Princess and the Peas, written and illustrated by new author Rachel Himes.

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As the familiar title suggests, this a retelling of the classic story The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen. I love fairy tales with all their frightful rawness, and I don’t always appreciate modern versions that purposefully miss the point. This, however, just might be an improvement on the original tale. Ms. Himes has created something really quite wonderful.

Set among a close-knit African-American community in 1950s South Carolina, the prince figure (named John) is surely a catch: kind, active, involved. When he decides to settle down and get married, his Ma is worried; she’s the best cook in Charleston County. How can any of these other young ladies take proper care of her John? So she gets word out about a contest. Only the girl who can make the best black-eyed peas is fit to marry her son.

Well all the local girls turn out to have a crack at those peas, but they’re just not up to the job. When the new girl shows up – “fresh out of college and sharp as a tack” – they don’t think she has a chance. But Princess soon proves that she can do much more than cook in this charming celebration of resourceful industry, family traditions, and blossoming romance.

Written in a fun storytelling style, this book is just the right length and can hold the interest of toddlers and school-age children alike. The illustrations are bright and expressive with lots of homey details. At the end is an Author’s Note describing the rich values she set out to portray, and also the recipe for Princess’s Black-Eyed Peas. (In the interests of full disclosure, I have not tried the recipe; being from Ohio, I’m no good judge of black-eyed peas. But the instructions are simple and clear, and would be a reasonable project to undertake with a child helping.)

What I love most about this fresh version of an old tale is its grasp of what truly makes someone worthy. It’s not about feeling a pea through a pile of mattresses, nor even about cooking. It has much more to do with caring about the people around you, and learning from them; about being willing to work hard, and confident enough to seize opportunities. It’s about being wise enough to take care of yourself, but knowing that you can rely on others (John, as it turns out, is no slouch!). It’s about family, community, and the simple things like food that bring us together.

Bon appétit!

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Pizza for the Queen by Nancy F. Castaldo and illustrated by Melisande Potter

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Please note: this dramatized historical account of the invention of Pizza Margherita is unfortunately out of print, but it is well worth looking for at the library. The recipe is fun to make and absolutely delicious!