The author, “B.B.” (a pseudonym used by artist Denys Watkins-Pitchford for his novels), was born in 1905 in Northamptonshire, England. As he grew up he developed a deep and lasting love and concern for the natural world that surrounds us. This biography from the website of the B.B. Society quotes his life motto, which was from an old Cumbrian tombstone, and which B.B. took completely to heart:
The wonder of the world
The beauty and the power
The shapes of things,
Their colours, light and shades
These I saw,
Look ye also while life lasts.
The Little Grey Men and Down the Bright Stream tell the story of the last four gnomes in England. The Little Grey Men was first published in England in 1942, and its sequel was published in 1948, although the story follows directly after the first book. Despite their age, I believe these books would still appeal to children today, particularly to children who are encouraged to maintain their belief in the fanciful as well as being encouraged to experience, love, and care for the natural world around us.
Baldmoney, Dodder, Sneezewort and Cloudberry are the last survivors of what was once a large population of gnomes throughout Britain (there are still some in Ireland, known as leprechauns). Through the book it becomes obvious that the main reason the population is dying out, besides their natural predators, is the encroachment of humans into their environment. Sound familiar? Using the fanciful image of gnomes and the rapid changing of gnome life, B.B. makes quite a point about the way humans have adversely affected the world of nature. However, this is not made in a heavy-handed way, it’s just part of the story, part of what the gnomes, and their friends in the bird and animal population, have to deal with on a daily basis. Through B.B.’s descriptions of the gnomes’ natural environment, and of the habits of the birds and animals, the reader learns a great deal about the English countryside without even trying. In the first book, we learn immediately that some time before, Cloudberry went off on a solitary expedition to discover the source of the stream where the gnomes had made their home for hundreds of years. Missing him, and eager for an adventure of their own, Baldmoney and Sneezewort craft a boat and head upstream to search for him. Dodder, the eldest of the brothers, will have nothing to do with this plan — until he becomes lonely, and decides to follow them. Peril and calamity, hardship and terror, as well as friendship from surprising sources, helpfulness from other birds and animals, and a wonder-full view of nature meet them as they make their way upstream. The first book ends with a surprise — a surprise which the reader will rejoice in.
The second book is somewhat darker. One of the brothers has changed, and there is a portion of the book which would have greatly upset me as a child. With that in mind, it would be best if the book was read first by the adult before sharing it with a child — some children could handle that section, others could not. The gnomes are on the move again, this time because humans have diverted their stream entirely, and there is no way that any of the birds, animals, or gnomes that made their homes in and around the riverbank could survive in the wake of this. The gnomes leave, not a moment too soon, to go “Down the Bright Stream” in search of a new home. Along the way, they meet other animals, see new scenes, encounter and surmount new difficulties, eventually arriving at the sea’s edge — and the potential for a new, happy life in Ireland, if they can somehow make it across the sea to that shining isle. Their attempt is nothing short of amazing… but I will leave it to you to read the book in order to discover whether or not they make it.
These books would be good to share with children of varying ages, from seven or eight and up — and could provoke all sorts of interesting discussions ranging from whether gnomes really do (or did) exist to how we continue to make life difficult for the creatures who must deal somehow with the changes we make, willy-nilly, to their environment. These two books provide a great deal that will delight the reader, and the read-to, as well as providing much to ponder. They will encourage all to do as B.B. did — “Look ye also while life lasts.”
If you’re ever in Northamptonshire in England, you might want — as I now do — to ramble along the Brixton Little Grey Men Trail, which will truly bring these books to life.
(As the links above suggest, this is only readily available new through the UK arm of amazon, although used copies are available in the U.S. and Canada.)
GIVEAWAY NOTE: It may not surprise you to learn that The Little Grey Men is a book Emma Walton Hamilton recommends for middle-grade readers in her book Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment. If you want to see what else she recommends, any comment made on any of my blogposts throughout August gets you entered in a GIVEAWAY draw for one copy of the book — winner will be announced on September 10th.