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Review: By Ash, Oak and Thorn by Melissa Harrison

Updated: May 1, 2021

Join three tiny guardians of the wild and learn all about the natural world in this heart-warming middle grade adventure. Ages 9+.

"Every child can play, given half a chance, but the full-grown mortals hardly ever do. Perhaps speaking the Wild Argot is the same thing - they forget how when they grow up."

In this impressive middle-grade debut from award-winning nature writer, Melissa Harrison, we are introduced to the Hidden folk: gnome-like guardians of nature. Moss, Burnet and Cumulus are tiny, but ancient beings whose purpose is to watch over the natural groves and spaces out in the wild. The three friends live in an ancient hollowed-out Ash tree at the bottom of a garden. They spend their days caring for of the plants and animals that live in and around the tree, while avoiding any contact with the mortals who live near by. Mortals do not see the Hidden Folk because they do not look closely enough at nature and they do not speak the Wild Argot - the language of wild things. They have bred tame animals, who do not speak it either and the Hidden Folk speculate if that is because humans have a desire, deep down, to still have animal friends.

One day, Cumulus, the oldest, notices that one of his hands is becoming invisible - something that he has never heard of happening in all his long life. Then their beautiful old Ash tree is destroyed in a storm, forcing the three friends on a journey into the wild to seek out their cousins and find some answers about what is happening to Cumulus. However, the journey takes them further than they would ever have imagined, across the countryside and into the city, as they begin to worry that they might be the last of the Hidden Folk.

I love a book that takes me into nature and brings me closer to the lives of the creatures that inhabit the planet with us. While I was reading this book, I had that wonderful sense of warmth and comfort that I got from the first time I read 'The Wind in the Willows'. It is such a warm and joyful read, full of amazing descriptions of plants and animals and a depiction of friendship between three sweet, funny and likeable characters. The ingenuity of the tiny people has echoes of The Borrowers, as they find clever ways to use things left behind by humans. The legends of tiny, human-like creatures living near humans is deeply entrenched in all strands of British folk lore, and many of these stories and myths are mentioned in the book.

Melissa Harrison taught me so much while reading this book and managed to do it in such a natural way that the story still flowed. Plants and animals are all referred to by their proper names and we learn about the impact that humans have had on them, ever since we settled from being hunter gatherers and began farming the land. The Hidden Folks' journey takes them from the countryside in to the city, where we learn about the amazing adaptability of British flora and fauna. Did you know that the urban pigeon is one of the best fliers in the avian kingdom, capable of the twists and turns in mid-air that keep it safe in the fast-paced and unpredicatable environment of the city? Or that the plane tree, so iconic in London, is excellent at trapping pollution and helping to clean the air? I lost count of the amazing facts that I read throughout this gorgeous book. I loved how it explored nature in both the country and urban environments, so that all children will be able to relate to the settings and creatures we find in them.

This is a story about friendship, as much as it is about nature. The Hidden Folks' relationships have their ups and downs, much like our own, and each of them is prone to the feelings that we recognise: anxiety, anger and sadness. Yet, Melissa Harrison uses these moments to teach us about why friends might behave in such a way or why we might feel certain emotions.

'By Ash, Oak and Thorn' is sure to delight readers of all ages. While it is aimed at ages 9+, I think it would make a great read aloud or shared read with children from the age of 7+. The main characters didn't read like strictly middle grade characters to me and I think there is a lot to learn from the story that would be great for younger readers as well. The main message is that humans seem to have forgotten that we are animals too and as much a part of nature as the animals and plants around us, which we should take care of before it is too late. It is a gorgeous blend of fairy tale, natural history and adventure. Readers will, hopefully, have a desire to seek out nature wherever they are, to keep their eyes open for the plants and animals that are all around us and, perhaps, if they look hard enough, spot some Hidden Folk as well!

Thanks to Chicken House Books for sending me an advanced reader copy in exchange for my honest review. 'By Ash, Oak and Thorn' by Melissa Harrison is published on the 5th of May 2021.

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