‘By Ash, Oak and Thorn’ — Melissa Harrison’s debut children’s book, inspired by Denys Watkins-Pitchford’s ‘The Little Grey Men’, and illustrated by Lauren O’Hara — was published earlier this month by Chicken House. Sue Brooks reviews.
On a warm afternoon last week, taking a break from reading to walk by the river, I paused to watch a female mallard and her nine tiny chicks under cover of the far bank. She was so careful: slowly across the more open stretches and then melting back into shadow. Without the binoculars they would have been easily overlooked.
Human voices. The splashing of paddles. Oh no. The canoe season must have started. I drew back too, under the big alders. Almost an instinctive movement. I wasn’t a part of that world and didn’t want to be seen, and above all, didn’t want the mallard family to be seen. I was their guardian and must do something to protect them. I know it sounds strange, but I really believe the desire was strong enough to cast a spell. I kept an eye on the mallard. She seemed to be making steady progress. The canoes passed close to the bank. Five of them, full of noise and not a single person noticed the wild ducks.
The enchantment of Melissa Harrison’s new book was at play and I thanked her for it. She has created a world where Mortals have taken control of all the places and creatures that used to be cared for by the Hidden Folk — little people who have existed since the beginning of time and are now worried that they are no longer needed. Weird things are happening: a terrific storm topples the ash tree which was home to the last known Hidden Folk, Moss, Burnet and Cumulus, and the two oldest find their hands and feet slowly becoming invisible. Their cosy suburban life is over and they must set out on a quest for greater understanding.
Sadness lies at the root of it all. Mortals are oblivious to the secret world of wild creatures. They do not speak the language — Wild Argot. They are isolated and only dimly aware that wild creatures melt away as soon as a Mortal appears. Perhaps they are lonely. But Hidden Folk are resilient and adventurous, and hopeful signs rapidly emerge. They meet a young girl with brown skin who speaks the Wild Argot and Cumulus invokes a rhyme from the Old Times:
Ash, oak and thorn
Were at the world’s dawn
Rowan and yew
Will make it anew.
There is a sense that the wisdom of the Hidden Folk’s ancestors, their folk tales and ballads and the Lore laid down by a figure called Robin Goodfellow, will lead to new meaning and purpose. Could the Hidden Folk stop becoming invisible? Could Mortals change their ways?
While it’s always difficult to make any comment about what might appeal to a child, By Ash, Oak and Thorn, for an adult reader, is a delight. I imagine myself reading aloud to the grandchildren, trying to speak the sub-dialects of the Wild Argot and getting into the feelings of poor old Moss, who really wants to be writing the ballad of their adventures instead of taking part in scary events like riding on the back of a deer, or a pigeon, or for that matter, a fox. Long years of Melissa’s close attention to the natural world yield perfect names for wild creatures: Vesper for a female fox, Spangle for a fast-talking starling, Zip for a blue tit, and my favourites; the vegan, city-dwelling Hob called Lintel, and the numerous young brown trout — ‘no one could tell them apart, so they were all just known as Dave’ — which make me laugh every time.
I particularly like the way the city is described in positive terms. It sounds terrifying to the Hidden Folk when they set out, but when they arrive and meet other wild creatures who have chosen to live alongside Mortals, it seems ‘as intricate and full of wonders as a beehive, termite mound or coral reef’ — a powerful message for city-dwelling children, their parents and teachers. Other details arise, not with a teacher’s hat on, but easily and naturally from the text; the nictitating membrane essential to a fast-flying pigeon, the backward-pointing teeth of a grass snake, or the purpose of flaky bark on a plane tree. And then there is the food. The wondrously inventive Hidden Folk Cook Book which includes conker skin biltong, popped pollen and freshly squeezed dandelion squash, beechnut flapjacks and rose petal pastry.
Following previous books based in town and country, and most recently The Stubborn Light of Things — which straddles the author’s move from London to Suffolk — writing a story for children seems a natural progression. Perhaps Denys Watkins-Pitchford who wrote The Little Grey Men, much loved by Melissa as a child (and myself also) was in attendance. He would have loved this book.
For children and for any adult inclined to enchantment, Moss, Burnet, Cumulus and Sorrel will open a door in the imagination, as they did for me with the mallards. Some people have seen the Hidden Folk but for the rest of us it depends, I suppose, on the matter of invisibility. By Ash, Oak and Thorn comes to a magnificent finale: celebration and the promise of another quest. I know if I were reading aloud, the tears would not be far away. Melissa Harrison has captured a new audience and we will all be looking forward to the next instalment. It’s due in October and the title is By Rowan and Yew.
‘By Ash, Oak and Thorn’ is out now and available here (£7.99).
Read a special piece by Melissa, detailing the inspirations behind the book, here.