At its heart, for me, this book is a celebration of nature and the British countryside, interweaving the story of a young girl, Pippa, as she explores the local countryside - following wherever her wellies take her – with poems and rhymes and ditties that evoke the seasons and animals and Pippa’s wandering nature, all alongside and intermingled with a profusion of sketches and drawings and paintings. This is all put together in a scrapbook style so that each aspect overlaps one another, with foldout pages, acetate inlays, hidden corners, and secrets to uncover.
The illustrator and book designer, Olivia Lomenech Gill, has been shortlisted for the 2014 Kate Greenaway Medal for the drawings and wonderful patchwork layout that make this book into the wonder that it is. Every single page has something different to offer, the detail and the care exquisite. From the three-stage sketch of a heron taking flight, chickens pecking at hay in the farmer’s yard, cows lowing and chewing the cud, and the sleeping valley giant to four-page wassail panorama, it makes you want to step into the page and be there for yourself. Lift the lid on the Blue Cross match book to reveal the beetle tucked inside, open the shed door to see who is sleeping in amongst the coals, resist the urge to wipe charcoal from your fingers. This work definitely matches the quality and ingenuity of 2012 Kate Greenaway winner Jim Kay (A Monster Calls).
Pippa visits the lambs, talks to bumblebees, breathes in the hedgerow flowers, checks the time by blowing dandelion clocks. She trogs across Farmer Yelland’s fields, greeting his animals, and is offered a ride on the farmer’s pony, Captain. It’s got an old-time feel to it which is encapsulated by the pictures: the farmer’s tractor is clearly vintage, there’s a distant image of an aproned woman carrying pails on a shoulder yoke, the farmer is turning the soil in the fields by hand, an old red telephone box stands on the village green. Indeed, in their introduction, Clare and Michael Morpurgo reference the best times of their childhoods, he wandering the marshes and sea walls of Bradwell, she tramping Devonshire lanes in search of lizards and slow-worms and this idyllic sense of a time lost, a childhood viewed through rose-tinted glass, pervades the pages.
Are these things lost to us? Or are they sealed behind grown-up eyes and modern technology? I think perhaps it is six of one and half a dozen of the other. Certainly the countryside around us is much changed in the last fifty, sixty years, but there is still plenty of quiet beauty to be appreciated once we put down our mobile phones, get out of our cars, put on our wellies, and take a little time out to wander down a tucked away country lane, peer in the hedges and listen to the birdsong. As a ‘country lass’ all of this is on my doorstep, if I stop to look at it - something that the many city children don’t always get the opportunity to taste. This is why the Morpurgos set up their charity, Farms for City Children, enabling thousands of children over the last thirty years to spend a week being farmers, providing a little piece of idyll for each of them:
“They feed the sheep and calves, muck out the horses, dig up potatoes. They wear wellies almost all the time, and in among their tasks they have the freedom to explore and enjoy the countryside around them, just as we did.”
Where My Wellies Take Me is something that little bit special; a book that any book lover, young or old, will surely love to have on their bookshelves. And the blending of the images with story and poetry, the interactive nature of many of the pages within the book, make it a perfect way to introduce younger readers to poetry: because there is so much to look at, because there is story and nature, it is easy to get sucked in, to want to investigate each page. And maybe it will inspire the creation of their own scrapbooks by collecting leaves, making accounts of beetles they meet when out walking, copying out poems or phrases that resonate with them, gradually building up a picture of their own lives and interests and everyday surroundings, creating their own piece of idyll.