celebrating 40 years of brambly hedge with apple cake


Over the stream and across the field is the world of Brambly Hedge…

Are you a Brambly Hedge fan? 

If so, then you probably know that Autumn 2020 marks 40 years since British author/illustrator Jill Barklem published the first four picture books in her charming series — Spring Story, Summer Story, Autumn Story, and Winter Story.

Released simultaneously by HarperCollins, they proved immensely popular among readers of all ages despite being written primarily for young children. To date they’ve been translated into 13 languages and have sold over 7 million copies.

I was drawn to Barklem’s incredibly detailed illustrations long before I actually read the stories. This is not surprising for a longtime Beatrix Potter fan who can’t resist anthropomorphized animals dressed in smart clothes. In fact, I probably first saw Barklem’s adorable mice on pieces of Royal Doulton china. 

Once I familiarized myself with all the characters and spent ample time in their idyllic English countryside, I was totally hooked. Brambly Hedge continues to attract generations of new readers with its emphasis on traditional values and universal themes such as family, friendship, community, seasonal self-sufficiency, and sustainability.

Author/illustration Jill Barklem in her studio.

A nature lover since childhood, Jill was inspired by the countryside where she grew up, especially the ancient woodland, Epping Forest. At age 13 she suffered a detached retina, which prevented her from participating in sports, so she spent her afternoons indoors, concentrating on art and botany. Her love of drawing flowers and twigs eventually prompted her to study illustration at St. Martin’s School of Art in London.

She did not look forward to the long commute from Epping to London on the underground every day — but eventually made good use of her time by escaping into her own richly imagined world of mice who lived in the trunks and roots of trees and hedgerows.

This is how Wilfred Toadflax, Primrose Woodmouse, Poppy Eyebright, Mr and Mrs Apple, and all the others were first conceived. After graduating from St. Martin’s, Jill briefly worked for Lion Publishing, penning a few picture books and illustrating Bibles, but she didn’t feel she was doing her best work.

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[review + recipe] I’m Feeling Blue, Too! by Marjorie Maddox and Philip Huber

 

Look! Just what we all need: a new BLUE book!

Yep, this one’s got my name written all over it, and I simply had to share it with you today.

Safe to say, most, if not all of us — young, old, somewhere in-between — have a crazy-making case of the pandemic blues. It may come and go, but some dark shade of it always seems to linger in the back of our minds. Or maybe we just have the blahs, feel bored or uninspired (confinement can do that to you). No better time to banish the ho-hums and embrace the unique power, beauty, and wonder of blue. 🙂

In I’m Feeling Blue, Too!, a poetry picture book written by Marjorie Maddox and illustrated by Philip Huber (Resource Publications, 2020), a young boy celebrates the essence of blue, discovering its presence in the world around and within him.

A sequence of 13 poems drives the narrative, which takes place on a summer’s day from morning to night. The opening poem is a wake-up call for all:

 

Hey you,

got those summertime slumps,
down-in-the-dumps,
life-full-of-bumps,
bad-news blues?

Time to get up
and shake up
the woulda-coulda-shoulda’s.
Time to get the “can’t-do-nothin’” out of blue.

Time to zap the sad
with some kaleidoscope clues.
Come on, whistle for Blue
and get moving!

Get ready. Get set. Guess blue!

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[review + recipe + giveaway] Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice by Nikki Grimes and Laura Freeman

 

Kamala Harris is precisely the vice presidential nominee we need at this particular moment in time. Being chosen to run alongside Joe Biden in the most consequential election of our nation’s history is a notable, glorious, glass-ceiling-shattering triumph.

Senator Harris hadn’t fully entered my radar until I  saw her grill Brett Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court Senate Confirmation Hearings in 2018. Wow! She was tough, articulate, whip smart, and definitely someone to watch. Early last year, I eagerly read her memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey (Bodley Head, 2019), and was wholly inspired by her compassion, work ethic, professional accomplishments, and steadfast commitment to social justice and public service.

 

 

Just two weeks after she was chosen to be Vice President Biden’s running mate, a new picture book biography, Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice by Nikki Grimes and Laura Freeman (Atheneum BFYR, 2020), officially hit shelves. Talk about perfect timing!

But then, everything about Kamala’s life story (her immigrant background, family history of political activism, impressive barrier-breaking, step-by-step rise in the ranks) suggests she was almost divinely destined to be the first African-American and first South Asian-American female candidate to run on a major party ticket during these turbulent times of systemic racism, economic inequities, public health crises, criminal injustices, and gender discrimination.

Thanks to Nikki Grimes’s succinct, artfully crafted free verse narrative, and Laura Freeman’s vibrantly gorgeous art, young people not only have an engaging overview of Harris’s life from birth to her withdrawal from the 2020 presidential nomination, but also an inspiring portrait of her character and true essence as a human being.

Grimes frames Kamala’s story as a conversation between a black mother and daughter. First grader Eve is upset because a boy in her class called her stupid for wanting to be President when she grows up. Eve’s mom says he’s wrong, and proceeds to tell her all about Kamala, a girl from right there in Oakland who hopes to be President one day.

 

Life is a story
you write day by day.
Kamala’s begins with a name
that means “lotus flower.”
See how her beautiful smile
opens wide, like petals
fanning across the water’s surface?
But you don’t see the flower’s roots. Her roots.
They grow deep, deep, deep down.
Let me show you.

 

Freeman’s beautiful double page spread provides a dramatic entrée into Kamala’s world, depicting her amidst pink lotus blossoms as a happy toddler, sensitive child, intent student, and an adult glowing with confidence. Grimes uses the floral/roots metaphor to great effect, as it prepares the ground for tracing the origins of Kamala’s ancestry, guiding principles and political aspirations. We sense this story will be an edifying blossoming, as we dig below the surface to learn how Kamala grew into the strong, determined leader, truth seeker, trail blazer, and role model she is today.

Young readers will especially appreciate the many pages devoted to Kamala’s early formative years: how her Jamaican father met and married her Indian mother in Berkeley before Kamala was born in Oakland, how they took her with them on civil rights marches, where she repeatedly heard words like “freedom,” “justice,” and “peace” even before she understood what they meant.

After her sister Maya came along, they enjoyed “faraway adventures together,/like visiting their grandparents in Zambia,” soon learning that “fighting for justice/ran in the family.”

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[chat + giveaway] Ashley Wolff on Only the Cat Saw

 

Miao! We are so pleased and honored to welcome award winning Vermont author, illustrator and teacher Ashley Wolff to Alphabet Soup today.

We’re big fans of her adorable Baby Bear books, classics such as Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for Earth (Mary McKenna Siddals), Baby Beluga (Raffi), and of course, the wildly popular Miss Bindergarten series, written by Joseph Slate.

In all, she’s published close to 70 titles (as either author/illustrator or illustrator), showcasing her lifelong love of nature and animals, and her mastery of a variety of styles and mediums, including acrylic gouache, linoleum block print + watercolor, and collage.

Her most recent self-illustrated picture book, Only the Cat Saw (Beach Lane Books, 2020), is a refreshed edition of a perennial favorite (first published by Dodd, Mead back in 1985) with all new art for a new generation. In this gentle, calming story, a multiracial family of four go about their daily routine from sunset to sunrise, while their marmalade tabby observes the wonders and beauty of the natural world.

 

 

As they’re busy with supper, only the cat notices the colorful sunset outside the window. During bath time, the cat has wandered out by the barn to play with fireflies, and while the older child, Tessa, reads with her flashlight under the covers, the cat witnesses the drama of an owl hunting a mouse. Oh, the wonderful things people miss when they’re preoccupied!

Spare text + single page spreads tracking the family’s indoor activities alternate with double page wordless spreads showing what the cat is up to. With each block of text, the repetitive tag line, “So only the cat saw . . . ” signals a suspenseful page turn that rewards the reader with beautiful scenes rendered in rich colors and lush textures, immersing him/her in the cat’s world of tall grasses, sleepy farm animals, lightning and rain, even a shooting star.

 

 

I love what Ashley has done with scale, perspective, and composition to play up the cat’s point of view, and her lighting effects, from gorgeous sunset and sunrise, to lamplight, flashlight, fireflies, moon and stars underscore the simple joys of life indoors and out. Such a lovely reminder to take time to appreciate what we too often take for granted.

In addition to being cozy and heartwarming, this story is  reassuringly relatable with its depiction of breast feeding, sitting on the potty, and having both parents share equally in household tasks. Kudos to Ashley for initially including these somewhat unusual details in the earlier book from 35 years ago, clear evidence of her feminist, forward thinking! 🙂

 

 

We thank Ashley for dropping by to tell us what it was like to re-illustrate one of her earliest picture books, and for sharing a favorite recipe and so many cool photos. Enjoy!

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celebrating colin’s birthday with 2 treats from The Secret Garden Cookbook (+ a giveaway)

♥️ Special thanks to Marian from the Netherlands for inspiring me to write this post. 🙂

“You can have as much earth as you want,” he said. “You remind me of someone else who loved the earth and things that grow. When you see a bit of earth you want,” with something like a smile, “take it, child, and make it come alive.”  ~  Archibald Craven (Frances Hodgson Burnett’s, The Secret Garden)

 

 

Guess who’s turning 60 on September 10?

Hint: he knows how to rock a waistcoat and cravat, is fluent in Italian, plays the guitar to relax, likes to tease fellow actor Gary Oldman about the size of his *ahem* manhood, almost voiced Paddington Bear in the movies, looks good WET (dry, and in-between), and even if you cook blue soup, he likes you just as you are.

Yes, it’s Colin, aka my secret husband (SO secret, even he doesn’t know about it). Fine specimen of a human being, don’t you think? Doesn’t look a day over 39. 🙂

 

Colin Firth as Archibald Craven in The Secret Garden (2020).

 

Unless you look at him playing Archibald Craven in the new Secret Garden movie. Have you seen it yet? They were all set for a big UK cinema premiere back in April, followed by the U.S. in August. But of course the pandemic changed everything, so instead, the movie went straight to video on demand beginning August 7, and will now open in UK cinemas October 23.

 

 

Colin, Colin, Colin, you’ve never looked so wretched, weary, or downtrodden. But Archibald is, of course, consumed with grief over the loss of his wife, making him inaccessible to his son and unable to properly care for his newly orphaned niece Mary Lennox, who comes to stay at Misselthwaite Manor.

 

Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters), Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), Colin Craven (Edan Hayhurst), Dickon (Amir Wilson) Archibald Craven (Colin Firth)

 

This new 2020 version (don’t worry, I promise not to be too spoilerish), is the fourth produced for the big screen, and Colin was attracted to the role because of the lavish garden scenes (which unlike previous films, were not confined to a single, walled-in area, but features an expansive, wide ranging terrain representing Mary’s unbounded imagination), as well as the “design concepts” of the castle, which really became a symbol for Archibald’s state of mind: dark, destructive, depressive. The creepiness of the house is highly atmospheric and underscores the tragic decline of what was once a joyful life.

Colin doesn’t get much screen time in the new movie; this makes sense since the story revolves primarily around the three young people: Mary, Colin Craven, and Dickon. The time period has been moved up to 1947, after WWII, instead of the early 1900’s as the book was originally set, and there is a new “character,” a stray dog named Jemima (later Hector, when his gender is confirmed), who helps lead Mary to the garden wall and gate key along with the robin.

 

Mary with Hector (this scraggly pup is a scene stealer!)

 

The spirit remains true to the original — the transformation of sickly, morose, isolated children into happy and healthier souls who blossom and thrive with newfound friendship, fresh air, good and nourishing food, and the magic of making things come alive.

Did you know this was the second time Colin appeared in a Secret Garden adaptation? Thirty-three years ago, when he was just 27, he played an adult Colin Craven in the 1987 Hallmark TV movie that’s told as a flashback from the POV of an adult Mary. Colin only appears at the very end, when he reunites with Mary after the war . . . and there’s romance!

 

Colin as Colin Craven in the 1987 Hallmark TV movie.

 

So it seems fated that Colin appear in these films, since there is a ‘Colin’ who has a major role in the novel, and he actually played this Colin years ago. Something else that’s cool about the 1987 version is that it was filmed at Highclere Castle. As a Downton Abbey fan, I enjoyed seeing familiar exteriors and interiors. 🙂

In addition to studio sets, the new 2020 movie was filmed at various gardens around England and North Wales, on location in Yorkshire, and at Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. Knebworth is a cool place all its own, known for hosting awesome rock concerts (Stones, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Eric Clapton), and has been a choice setting for many other films, including “Nanny McPhee” and “The King’s Speech.” I imagine Colin feels quite at home there. 🙂

 

Poor Archibald. He needs some good food to restore his spirits!

 

The Secret Garden is one of my top three all-time favorite children’s novels, so it’s really icing on the cake to see Colin, however briefly, in two of the movies. Revisiting this classic, whether between the covers or up on a screen, tends to make me hungry because hearty farm-fresh Yorkshire fare helped restore Mary and Colin to optimum health. Okay, time to eat.

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