Find out why we love this book, discover what inspired the story, see some early sketches and learn about the creative process behind bringing the countryside so vividly to life...
We’re kicking off a two-week tour for The Happy Hedgerow today and we’re very excited! I first saw this book back in May and have been looking forward to sharing it ever since. Rows of bushes, plants and trees that separate fields, hedgerows are the largest natural habitat in Ireland and the UK, and essential to the ecosystem.
This is the story of Old Oak, a tree who cheerfully provides shelter to many plants, wild animals, insects and birds, nestled within a busy hedgerow. Across the field is his friend Old Beech, amidst another hedgerow. When a farmer takes a bulldozer to Old Beech’s hedgerow, and destroys it, the environment changes drastically. The field is bare on one side, offering less protection against the elements, and leaving it and its inhabitants more vulnerable to the changing seasons. Will harmony be restored, or has it been lost forever?
Old Oak is such an endearing character whose compassionate personality is fitting for an ancient tree. It’s fantastic how positive he remains despite being subjected to so much adversity. Author Elena Mannion manages to turn a tree into a convincing and compelling protagonist. She writes eloquently and gently with charming details such as Old Oak’s leaves standing on end when he is frightened.
Erin Brown’s illustrations are stunning, contribute to the book’s cosiness, and help to give it a timeless quality. I love how intricate and atmospheric each image is, recalling favourites from my own childhood such as Beatrix Potter and Brambly Hedge. We see so much wildlife, from tiny butterflies to several different species of birds. Some of my favourite scenes feature animals in their burrows; there is even a pair of snails looking snug underground.
The countryside is so realistic, with all the branches clearly visible in winter and lots of animals showing accurately how a hedgerow looks at different times of the year. It’s brilliant how the story shows the changing seasons and their influence on the landscape. We learn how crucial hedgerows are in a subtle and engaging way. My girls (aged four and six) adore poring over the illustrations and discussing the altered circumstances for Old Oak and his friends.
The Happy Hedgerow is a beautiful book which, like its subject, is bursting with life and the splendor of nature. The story demonstrates the significance of hedgerows and inspires little readers to conserve them. It’s more important than ever to impress the importance of the environment and its protection, on adults as well as children.
This is a powerful and hopeful story that will resonate with readers young and old. It's a fantastic resource for teachers and a wonderful addition to every bookshelf, which like Old Oak, is certain to pass the test of time. We were delighted to speak to this book's author Elena Mannion and illustrator Erin Brown about The Happy Hedgerow and you can read our discussions below…
Five quick questions with Elena Mannion
Raised in rural Hertfordshire, Elena Mannion spent most of her childhood outdoors, playing in the fields, fishing for sticklebacks and making dens! After many years in London, she returned to Hertfordshire. Reading and writing stories for her children has led to The Happy Hedgerow, her first book. She hopes that it will encourage all children to protect nature.
What inspired you to write this story and what do you hope children will take from it? I’ve always loved the natural world, and like many people during Covid spent more time wandering the footpaths. Where I live in Hertfordshire is a literal spider’s web of footpaths! Perhaps because I was outdoors more last year, I felt there was a story to be told about our hedgerows. They are very humble, yet beautiful, teeming with life, and in need of our protection. And it is a wonderful thing to write a book that celebrates the nature that children love instinctively. Young children, delightfully, don’t see themselves as separate from nature, and my book will hopefully just confirm to them what they already notice and love!
Was it difficult to write a story with a tree as the main protagonist?
It wasn’t challenging at all! Perhaps because a tree has a circumscribed world and limits to its actions. Old Oak has to accept he is subject to the laws of nature, and of course, human activity. So, there were already boundaries set for me, which I suppose was helpful. Given the story is about his reactions to his world, it’s easy to empathise with his sense of dismay and helplessness, as we have all felt that. But making him both strong and resilient – as we expect oaks to be – and a protective paternal figure was really a lovely part of the writing.
How did it feel to see Erin’s illustrations for the first time?
Well, frankly Erin is a huge talent! Based on a very short brief, she produced a sketch of Old Oak which demonstrated she was entirely in sympathy with the story and this character. It was a delightful rendition, and I was really pleased when I saw her rough sketches and then her colour art. As the work was sent in, page by page, I felt it was a perfect match. Her eye for detail is exceptional, as is her palette.
This is such a hopeful tale - are you optimistic about the future of natural habitats?
Where I live, more hedgerows are being planted and there is definitely a growing understanding of how much they do. Hedgerows capture carbon (which I wasn’t aware of before!), protect precious soil and provide wildlife corridors, even in cities (the latter being very important!). I’m thankful for the existence of The Tree Council, and CPRE, the countryside charity. They work so hard to keep nature safe and accessible for all of us and they give me hope! And I think I detect more and more people trying to give nature a voice and protect our green spaces.
Where’s your favourite place to go for country walks &/or hedgerow spotting? I really enjoy walking the paths leading out of the village where I live, which are varied and rich in hedgerows. Perhaps because last year was so quiet, the wildlife appeared to be more present; nature really seemed to be celebrating. I have recently fallen (back) in love with Yorkshire though; the sweetness of the air is striking and the peace and vistas soothe the soul! There are more magnificent stone walls rather than hedgerows though!
Five quick questions with Erin Brown Erin Brown combines a love for hand-drawn lines and traditional techniques with the flexibility and freedom of adding colour digitally. She has worked with a variety of clients such as Oxford University Press, Farshore (Egmont) and Little Tiger Press. Her love of stories comes from her Grandad who lived by the sea and was always ready with a tale or two (and a biscuit). When not working, Erin can be found baking something overly sweet, exploring Jersey’s forests and cliff paths, or watching the tide roll in at the seashore. You can see more of her work on her website and by following @erinbrownillo on Instagram and Twitter.
What did you find most challenging about this project?
One of the most challenging aspects was trying to be as accurate as possible when it came to all the plants and animals. The story follows the progression of the seasons, so featuring different migratory birds and correctly representing how the hedgerow changes throughout the year was really important. Our fantastic designer Rachel was a great help with this as she had tons of resources. Her husband Paul made sure all our birds were correct including when and where they should be!
What did you enjoy the most?
The thing I enjoyed most was being able to dive into these intricate scenes of nature and get fully immersed in them. I would wrap myself up at my desk with a massive cup of tea and get lost in drawing the little details; it was incredibly therapeutic. All the illustrations were drawn out on much larger sheets of paper, which allowed me to get a lot of detail into every image.
Something else that I found incredibly rewarding was the new things I learned about the local wildlife and nature while conducting research for the book. Going for a walk now and being able to identify a few species of trees or flowers and a bird or two is hugely satisfying. It makes me feel like an excited child pointing out the things I can recognise!
I love how cosy the images are, especially the animal homes – how did you make them so atmospheric?
Thank you so much! I’m so glad you say that; thinking about the atmosphere and feeling of each spread was something I paid a lot of attention to. My favourite books growing up were by Beatrix Potter and animal homes were always something she did so well; her work was definitely an inspiration. I think beginning the work in January helped me make scenes that looked as cosy as they could. Looking out at the cold grey sky and dreaming of a warm, sunny spring happened more than a few times while working on the illustrations!
Did you spend a lot of time outdoors when creating the art for this book or are the pictures drawn from your imagination?
I did do quite a lot of research when I could, it was one of the first things I did for the book. Around October/November 2020, I wrapped up warmly and headed out to see all the trees and hedgerows I could find. Going out and finding a big, beautiful tree lets you see how they actually look, how unique they are and how they all have their own personalities.
I’m very fortunate to live on Jersey, which has so many breathtaking landscapes and a lot of farmland too. Autumn is such a beautiful time here and there are a few trees that helped me create the main character, Old Oak. If you ever visit Jersey, there’s one particularly old and twisty oak tree along the coast near Bouley Bay that really inspired me.
When I started the final art, it was during lockdown. So, getting out into nature was a bit trickier and I did have to rely on my imagination and reference photos. During that time, spending whole days immersed in drawing these scenes did feel a bit like an escape into nature, for which I was really thankful!
Which spread is your favourite and why?
It has to be the opening spread as it was the first I worked on and I think it sets the tone for the whole book. Old Oak is reaching his arms out which shows how protective he is of his hedgerow and all the animals that make it their home. When working on a book, some spreads can be quite cooperative, while some can be a bit difficult at times!
The opening spread was a dream to work on and just seemed to draw itself, so I have extremely fond memories of working on it. Honourable mention goes to the two tiny dormice with their berries on the first page; I couldn’t resist including a little cuteness!
Thanks so much to Elena and Erin for taking the time to answer our questions and for sharing their gorgeous book with us too - all opinions expressed are our own. Don't forget to visit all the other stops on this exciting tour to learn more about this brilliant book: