The Little Grey Men by BB

menThis novel is one of the all-time great river novels – ‘Heart of Darkness’ with little folk. A quest for their long-lost brother, Cloudberry, leads Dodder and his brothers on a journey of great bravery and excitement. Cloudberry travelled upstream years before to find the source of the Folly and never returned.

This is the first of what I am sure are going to be many indulgent purchases in the name of furnishing a library for my daughter – patently they’re for me but I won’t tell anyone if you don’t. I read this a long, long time ago when my parents allowed me to borrow it from their shop as long as I read it without marking it so it could still be sold! I remember that first read, as a child of nine or ten, as captivating – I was loathed to return it but we didn’t have enough spare money for me to keep it, so when I noticed The Folio Society were releasing an edition I was compelled to buy it.

This is a true children’s classic. From the outset, B.B.’s familiarity and knowledge of the natural world is apparent – the book is steeped in nature. The fact that it is so evocative of the British countryside makes it believable. Anyone who has spent time poking about stream banks as a child or adult can imagine sitting very still and watching as the animals and gnomes come out of the cracks and crevices. The plausibility of these little folk appearing from the tree roots is what makes it so magical for children.

B.B.’s description of a cosy night by the fire in the oak home of the gnomes shows great skill in characterisation and creation of a world that comes alive in the pages. There is something melancholy about the atmosphere as they hunker down against the cold and wet. The reader is drawn quickly into this little world of the gnomes and the three brothers are so endearing that it is impossible not to be affected by the poignant departure of Baldmoney and Sneezewort. Adult and child alike will share in the horror of Crow Wood and the magic touches hearts of any age.

This book is evocative of a bygone age. The creatures he describes are often relics of the countryside of our grandfathers’ time when the country was rich and replete with diverse and rare species that you see few of today. The language and writing is neither patronising nor childish. It’s a delightful tale and one that is educational with B.B.’s descriptions of the natural world. For children, it is a source of inspiration, feeding their imagination and acting as a starting point for the development of a relationship of true love and affection for the countryside and creatures around us. It is as if the countryside is a character in itself.

I don’t usually comment on editions but it would be remiss to finish this review without giving The Folio Society credit for the beautifully produced edition they have released. It certainly added to my enjoyment of the novel. It’s wonderfully illustrated with D.J. Watkins-Pitchford’s black and white woodcuts and beautifully complementary colour plates. In combination with the magical story, this makes this a wonderful ‘read aloud’ book for younger children and a treasure for older children to cherish.

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