By Jill Barklem
When I think back to the favorite books of my childhood, books whose tang of atmosphere and illustration are still keen in my mind, one of the first I remember is the series of English country tales known as theBrambly Hedge books. These picture books were so intricately illustrated and vividly told that I remember them as if they were a place I visited, some small corner of earth that I explored. The author of these fine tales, Jill Barklem, spent years researching the customs, handcrafts, and traditional celebrations of the rural English countryside before she set to illustrating them in her own stories for children. Such was her success that when I read her books as an adult, I feel that I have returned to a place that brought me comfort, creativity, and hours of joy.
These picturesque tales present the ongoing adventures of a close-knit community of forest mice – their celebrations, escapades and family dramas. The Hedge is gently governed by Lord and Lady Woodmouse, who live in the Old Oak Palace and see to it that all the mice in their care are well-feasted and never forgotten. The rest of the mice live close by, scattered throughout the trees and bushes of the hedge, living from the communal Store Stump run by Mr. Apple, a gathering place for the bountiful fruit, nuts and goods gathered through the bright summer days.
The illustrations are a visual feast of homes crammed to the corners with books, crafts, jugs of cider and jars of jam, roaring fireplaces and mantelpieces that show you what a cottage in old England might have looked like. The stories are whimsical; the finding of a secret passage, the celebration of the midwinter ball, the tale of a harvest journey. All are rich in their affirmation of life, family, simple living and the joy of natural beauty. I have to admit that I have found myself drawn to these again in adulthood as presenting a settled, country, and richly creative view of life. I yearn to live a bit more like the mice in Brambly Hedge, to celebrate the seasons, cook well, live in community, explore. These stories are adorable, yes, but they’re also inspiring, even if peopled by fluffy white mice.
The books have been out of print over the last few years, so you have to search for them in used bookstores. But I found an edition of the stories just published when I was recently in England, so I’m quite hopeful that the new version will arrive in the States before long. No matter how you come by them, these books are worth the time and effort for they will spur the children who read them to feasts, games, and exploration of the fields. And I warn you, these books kindle a keen hunger for the blackberry tea and scones they describe, so let the reader be prepared.
Here’s a list of the best titles to get you started: