Woodlands – book reviews

Woodlands – book reviews © Jason and Clare www.flickr.com

Find yourself a shady nook and curl up with one of these beautiful books, selected and reviewed by Anne Faundez.

The River Singers

the river singers

Title: The River Singers (HB)
Author: Tom Moorhouse
Illustrator: Simon Mendez
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price: £10.99

It’s hard to match this gripping and beautiful debut novel for quality of writing and the sheer thrill of adventure.

A mother water vole introduces her pups to life beyond the burrow. Warning them of the dangers of the outside world, she leads them to the Great River. There, she explains its significance to water voles in general – or River Singers as she calls them – and tells of its conflicting moods and its role as giver of life but also destroyer. Shortly after, she dies, killed by an unknown predator.

The eldest pup, Sylvan, now fears that he and his siblings will also fall prey. As he agonises over whether to abandon their home, he hears the sounds of the river turning into a song deep within him, echoing his mother’s words and urging him to flee. Obeying the river’s call, he gathers his siblings together and leads them into the unknown. Their quest for a new life is one of danger and loss, but also of courage, endurance and lasting friendship.

The author’s narrative skill and intimate subject knowledge create a truly riveting story about life on the riverbank. The balance between anthropomorphism and natural behaviour is held in a delicate, believable equilibrium.

The animals feel and speak, eloquently at times, as humans yet their habits and habitats describe a meticulously observed reality, reflecting the author’s background as a conservation ecologist. This book, with its intense lyricism, wonderful characters and breathtaking plot, is in the tradition of the best animal stories, and is sure to endure. Elegant black and white illustrations gracingmost pages add further enjoyment.

Hansel and Gretel

hansel and gretel

Title: Hansel and Gretel (PB)
Author: Michael Morpurgo
strong>Illusrator: Emma Chichester Clark
Publisher: Walker Books
Price: £6.99 each

Words and pictures capture the essence of the forest as the embodiment of fear in this magical retelling of the Grimms’ tale. A wicked old witch with the gift of shapechanging longs, above all, to be young again so that she can find love. One day, she peeps into the cottage of Gabriel and Lisette and their children Hansel and Gretel. She falls head over heels in love with Gabriel and begins to plot Lisette’s demise. She changes into a beautiful young woman called Belladonna, casts a spell on Lisette and usurps her place.

The story is told at a leisurely pace, gathering details and characters along the way and weaving them into the fabric of the story. Rich and alliterative, it is perfect for reading aloud. The illustrations are exquisite, echoing the moods of the story. Hansel and Gretel’s feelings of joy and youthful optimism are captured through jewel-toned colours and decorative patterns, their sense of abandonment through a reduced palette of murky grey-greens and a worm’s eye view of towering trees.

Little Evie in the Wild Wood

Little Evie in the Wild Wood

Title: Little Evie in the Wild Wood (HB)
Author: Jackie Morris
strong>Illustrator: Frances Lincoln
Publisher: Walker Books
Price: £12.99 each

Woodlands are a place of beauty, peace and harmony in this story that has distant echoes of Red Riding Hood. Little Evie ventures out into the woods one day, following the path her mama once showed her. In her hands is a basket of jam tarts. The trees protect her on her way, creating a tunnel through which sunlight gently filters. She treads on earth that is soft and damp and rustles with the sound of leaves. She encounters butterflies dancing, insects humming and the wind singing gently. Out of nowhere, the wood-pigeons call in warning, but the sun bathes her in light, reassuring her that all is well. She hears a low growl – but the sun once again reassures her and kisses her face.

Gentle and onomatopoeic, the story reads like a poem that plays upon the senses. The author, also a renowned illustrator, brings to the story a feel for language that is lyrical, measured and bursting with imagery. Catherine Hyde’s illustrations mirror the story’s gentleness in their soft shapes and delicate colours.

Into the Forest

Into the Forest

Title: Into the Forest (HB)
Author: Anthony Browne
Publisher: Walker Books
Price: £5.99 each

There’s much to discuss in this story in which the unsettling atmosphere of a forest and its fairytale inhabitants are used to explore a child’s anxiety. The narrator, a young boy, awakens one morning to find that Dad has left home. Mum appears withdrawn, unwilling to meet his gaze and unable to say when Dad will return. The next day, she asks him to take a cake to Grandma, who is poorly. He sets out, taking a shortcut through the forest. There, among the sinister trees with weird images carved into their trunks, he encounters several strange characters.

The pictures convey meaning beyond the words. Vibrant colours portray the narrator, his family and home, in sharp contrast to the monochrome tones of the forest. Throughout, visual clues reference specific fairytales that play out in the forest. A beanstalk and a giant’s club identify the boy he meets as Jack. Similarly, from the scattered clues – three bears, a gingerbread house, a spindle, a red cloak – we recognise the other fairytale characters who haunt the landscape. Every detail is significant, open to interpretation. This is an extraordinary book, which will enhance children’s visual literacy and encourage them to bring their own knowledge of fairytales to the story.

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