'The Bog Baby' by Jeanne Willis and Gwen Millward is one of our favourite picture books, being that rare beast that can captivate both a seven-year boy and a three-year old girl time and time again. I couldn't count how many times I've read this to the kids, but it still brings a tear to my eye too (in a good way!!).
An enchanting and beautifully illustrated story, 'The Bog Baby' is about two sisters who sneak off on a forbidden trip to a pond in a bluebell wood to fish for newts, but catch a bog baby instead. Small and blue, with wings like a dragon, they fall in love with this magical little creature, and take him home to care for in secret. At first, it's all great fun.
But the bog baby is a wild thing and, kept in a bucket and fed on cake crumbs, he begins to pine away. The girls must choose whether to keep their secret or admit their original naughtiness to their mother and ask for help saving their beloved pet. This is when they learn that hardest lesson; loving something sometimes means letting it go.
Perfectly capturing the matter-of-fact, innocent voice of young children, the story is simply narrated by the youngest sister (sweetly illustrated in her red pinafore and wellies). She starts the story telling us that "Long ago, when we were little, me and Chrissy did something bad." My kids, like most I know, adore tales of naughtiness (there's one in particular they both love, involving their mother-as-a-child and the big, red, 'stop' button on a Parisian department-store escalator...), and this admission of guilt hooks them right from the beginning. The narrator, making us co-conspirators after the event, then tells us exactly what bad thing it was they'd done - "We said we were going to Annie's house to play, but we didn't."
What they did instead, of course, was head into the spring-time woods for a fishing trip, but this first lie (which has been known to bring gasps of outrage from my extremely honest son, though not from his more pragmatic sister) has consequences later on when the girls need help caring for the bog baby they catch on their expedition.
It's one of the many great talking points in the book - was it wrong to lie? Why was fishing in the woods forbidden? How did the sisters feel about it when they finally told their mum? Yet the situation emerges very naturally and conversationally as part of the story.
This is also a great book to get kids thinking about the needs of wild creatures, and what it means to be free. The bog baby itself is of course a fantastical and purely magical creature, and that allows Willis and the illustrator, Gwen Millward to give it a range of very human expressions that help children empathise with its predicament even as they might still identify with the mischievous sisters. Responding with bewildered calm to its' abduction, the bog baby is only ever gentle, and seems to bond with its' new owners.
But trips to the school in a margarine tub or walks on the end of a leash can't compare to floating free in a muddy pond, sucking its toes. The bucket home that the girls decorate for it is very nice, but my children were quick to understand, as I think most kids would, that this can't compare to what the bog baby has lost. Bog babies aren't meant, after all, to live in buckets or eat cake crumbs.
This is a very gentle and beautiful book, with a touch of melancholy leavened by humour, and thankfully with a happy end! There are some simple but profound messages on freedom and responsibility, secrets and the consequences of actions, handled in a forthright way that makes it all just part of the story without seeming overly preachy. And while the illustrations are undeniably stunning, the story is also masterfully written. Little details like the squeaking of the bluebells underfoot evoke the whole sensory experience of the woods without drowning the story in unnecessary verbiage. The language is simplistic enough to evoke childhood without being patronising, and makes the text easily accessible even for very young children like T-Bird, while still having enough depth to satisfy older kids like her avid-reader big brother too.
'The Bog Baby' is quite honestly one of my all time favourite kids' books (and I've read an awful lot of them!). But of course, more tellingly and importantly, it's also one of my kids' favourites too. I'm happy with that - I hope the magic stays with them until they're old enough to tell their own children about bog babies. And when T-bird and I go pond dipping next week, I know what we'll both be hoping to find - though of course we'd let it go again straight afterwards!
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