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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Review: The Tale of Despereaux

If your child reads just one book this summer, let it be this one. Let it be The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.

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This tale of an unlikely hero’s quest is told in the style of a classic adventure story. It takes place in a castle, as all good adventures should. The hero is a very young, very small mouse named Despereaux, who is emboldened by true love to step beyond his world and is banished for it. No one expects him to return from the dungeon; but he does, and with the sole purpose of descending back into the darkness to rescue his beloved, the Princess.

Of course, the little mouse is not alone in his quest. He is both helped and hindered by those around him, and we soon realize how deeply each person’s reactions and decisions affect others. But hope, just like hurt, can come from unexpected sources, and appearances can be deceiving. Despereaux himself must learn to be brave; he must learn to become the hero.

Little Despereaux faces rejection from his family, expulsion from his home, separation from the one he loves, and the wiles of a particularly vengeful rat. The rat too has a story; as does the serving girl and the jailer and the king. They all fit together, whether they like it or not. Along the way they all learn something about dealing with loss, longing to be loved, and the comfort afforded by something as simple as a bowl of good soup.

This is no foolish parody, but rather quite a serious study of human nature; about how it can be hurt and how it can choose to respond, about why it desires music and light and beauty and why those things are worth seeking. It explores notions of justice and chivalry that have fascinated humans for centuries. Above all, this story is about love. Not the fleeting sensation of affection, but the love that is willing to forgive and to sacrifice; the love that is willing to serve.

Ideal for readers age 8 and up, Despereaux would also make a splendid family read-aloud for children much younger. With enriching language and a timeless storytelling feel, the very short chapters are easy to fall into and rather addictive. The plot does feature themes of parental abuse, abandonment, and death that are distressing; but the feelings evoked are thoughtfully discussed in close company with the narrator, who constantly urges the reader to think critically about what is happening. The thoughts and feelings of different characters – with names like Miggery Sow and Chiaroscuro – are treated with reality and empathy throughout.

Please, please read this story with the children in your life. Despereaux is the hero we all need – the hero we can all become.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame

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Series Review: Bear and Mouse

I look forward to kicking off each month with a review of a series, collection, or list of related titles. Think of it as a package deal for my fellow readers. I’ll begin with a favorite in our family: the Bear and Mouse books, written by Bonny Becker and illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton.

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The series begins with A Visitor for Bear; it sets the premise for the whole series, though the books follow no sequence and could easily be read independently of one another. Bear, a very particular sort of fellow, leads a comfortable and solitary life in his cozy home. He is not prepared to become friends with the cheerful and persistent Mouse, who drops in unexpectedly one morning on his well-ordered domicile. Bear tries to dismiss this unwelcome companion, but soon finds how much more pleasant it is to enjoy life with a friend.

Once Mouse and Bear have shared that first pot of tea their subsequent adventures always begin the same way: the grumpy Bear at home, interrupted by a knock on the door from his exuberant little friend. Bear’s resistance to Mouse’s arrangements for birthday parties, sleepovers, holidays, and library trips begins to sound familiar, and we realize that perhaps there is a little bit of Bear in all of us. How easy it would be to stay within the familiar comfort of our own home! But like Bear, little readers are assured that it is worthwhile to step outside our own front doors, to make friends and to celebrate life together.

The relationship between Bear and Mouse is humorous and charming, and their experiences are gently encouraging. Becker’s text is intelligent and expressive, making any of these tremendous fun to read aloud. The illustrations are soft and sweet, warmly inviting us into Bear’s lovely home (I can’t be the only adult who would like to live there). Additionally, Candlewick Press publishes gorgeous books, so the color and balance of the words with the pictures and even the weight of the paper makes these books delightful to read. Since they indirectly address an array of childhood experiences in no particular order, these would make splendid occasion gifts from grandparents or other relatives who want to help build a nice collection over time. They are appropriate for toddlers who are ready to sit still on up to six or seven years old.

I hope you enjoy meeting Mouse and Bear. We all need friends like this, and with the right encouragement, we can show our children how to be such friends to others.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: The Frog and Toad Storybook Treasury by Arnold Lobel

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