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NHW: The Happy Hedgerow author on nature writing for children

The Tree Council

May 11, 2023

Elena Mannion is the author of Old Oak and Little Acorn, and 2021’s The Happy Hedgerow. To mark National Hedgerow Week 2023, Elena gives us an insight into her approach to nature writing for children.

My passion for nature made it a delight to create a small patch of British countryside as the setting for The Happy Hedgerow – idealised perhaps, but in its essence the sort of countryside I would like to see protected for all time.

Writing for children seems to involve (at least for me) stripping away my adult brain, and finding a child’s eyes again. The Happy Hedgerow came to me very quickly. But once I had written the first draft, I needed to discover more about the birds and insects that live in hedgerows. I wanted the narrative to include wildlife that, though common, is not now familiar by name to most children (or adults, including me!). A good example is the dunnock. For we humans, possessing an extensive vocabulary is pleasurable and empowering: in terms of nature words, it delivers a sense of connectedness. So with children’s stories, I see an opportunity to quietly put something back. My books are aimed at 3-7 year olds because they are picture books, but this to me does not mean you can’t write in thoughtful prose with interesting words – it’s even more important!

Apart from reading about hedgerows on websites such as The Tree Council, Hedge Link and CPRE, I also asked an agricultural engineer about the type of harvester to illustrate. This kind of simple research gives a story depth, authenticity, and makes the creative process more interesting. Farmers are repositories of huge amounts of information: I have subsequently discussed fallowing with a farmer for my next book.

What isn’t realistic in my books is that the hedgerow, trees, birds and insects have personalities. This allows them to speak, giving the young reader access to wildlife’s concerns – related to its man-dependent state. Children know that the oak tree, blackthorn and hawthorn cannot run away if anything bad happens to their world! So empathy is hopefully engaged – and a desire to protect nature – which with luck will continue through to adulthood.

I find that respecting the boundaries of reality makes writing easier: working with what exists physically in each season is a limitation that can throw up ideas. The story then starts to find itself. Working with a brilliant illustrator like Erin Brown brings the story to life of course, and her detailed – often witty – touches illuminate the narrative beautifully.

Writing and reading stories where nature is the protagonist helps us to step away from ourselves. The natural world has its own rhythm, and we are free to connect to it if we want, liberating ourselves from the need to control. I hope that children recognise in my books their instinctive connection to nature – and decide never to let it go!

This National Hedgerow Week, Elena is kindly donating £1 to The Tree Council from every copy sold of The Happy Hedgerow. Find out more abour National Hedgerow Week, brought to you by The Tree Council and partners, by visiting www.nationalhedgerowweek.org.uk

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