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BB (Denys Watkins Pitchford), The Little Grey Men - Slightly Foxed Cubs

True to nature: Robert Macfarlane, Helen Macdonald and more on the children’s books that inspired them

A couple of years ago I found myself gazing at the cover of a book I’d loved as a child: the 1942 Carnegie medal-winning The Little Grey Men, by the naturalist, illustrator and sportsman Denys Watkins-Pitchford, who wrote under the name BB. The charge it carried felt electric, and even opening the cover felt risky; I braced myself in case its magic had faded in the 40 years since it had been read to me at bedtime.

The Little Grey Men was published during the misery of the second world war, with destruction all around and a sense – familiar to us today – of a world in terminal decline. I remembered it as an utterly luminous evocation of spring, summer and autumn in the countryside, seen through the eyes of the very last gnomes in Britain: “honest-to-goodness gnomes, none of your baby, fairy-book tinsel stuff, and they live by hunting and fishing like the animals and birds, which is only proper and right,” as BB wrote. As a child I loved that business-like tone, with its flattering dismissal of other, “babyish” stories; I loved BB’s illustrations, the precise and detailed rendering of the natural history in the book, and most of all the feeling it gave me of a secret world to which I was being granted privileged access.

I needn’t have worried. As I turned the pages I found myself enchanted all over again, and I began to think about the other nature novels I’d loved: Fiver, Hazel and Bigwig’s flight from ecological destruction in Richard Adams’s Watership Down; the glorious Devon riverscapes of Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter; Wulfgar gnawing off Teg’s paw to free her from a snare in Brian Carter’s A Black Fox Running. I could clearly see how those early animal stories had shaped my adult interests and sympathies, but when I tried to find modern books that might awaken children’s interest in nature – perhaps written by a more diverse range of voices than those I had grown up with – I was surprised by how few there were. Working in secret in case I couldn’t pull it off, I began to write By Ash, Oak and Thorn, an updated story inspired by, and in homage to, the magical world created by BB.

Slightly Foxed contributor Melissa Harrison on the children’s nature writing that inspired her own in the Guardian

Slightly Foxed contributor, Robert Macfarlane, discusses Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood series and BB’s Brendon Chase, Helen Macdonald remembers the Ladybird’s classic What to Look for . . . series, originally illustrated by Charles Tunnicliffe, and David Lindo, author, broadcaster and wildlife tour leader, tells how he was inspired by conservationist Gerald Durrell’s memoirs: ‘Reading My Family and Other Animals really fuelled my future lust for travel and discovery.’


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