Saturday, 27 July 2013

Reading can save your life - Lily Hyde

My little niece poisoned herself last week. Many panicked questions (and a trip to the hospital) later, we found out she had been eating green arum (or lords-and-ladies) berries from the hedgerow. She thought they were peas. 

While everyone else started discussing forest school and the yawning distance between today’s children and their natural environment, my only question was “Why hasn’t anyone given her the Flower Fairy books?”

It seems to me now that I grew up doing nothing but read books, and usually ones that featured princesses, fairies and pretty dresses. I was hopelessly girly and bookish. But I bet I never ate arum berries by mistake, because Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairy books, as well as being as full of pretty dresses as any little girl could wish, are also botanically accurate and contain many useful footnotes on the names, properties and uses of plants.
The Lords-and-Ladies fairy (from Flower Fairies of the Autumn, By Cicely Mary Barker) 
Here is Barker on another poisonous plant, woody nightshade, which grows all around where my niece lives:

“Why should you think my berries poisoned things?
You fairies may look scared and fly away –
The children will believe me when I say
My fruit is food for kings!”
But all good fairies cry in anxious haste,
“O children, do not taste!”
Footnote: You must believe the good fairies…

 After Barker’s fairies Alison Uttley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, BB and T H White are other children’s authors from whom I learned about the natural world. I was a hopelessly bookish child, but I think I know more about the countryside than many people who never read books. I’m looking forward to sharing these books with my niece when she’s a bit older.

The Flower Fairy books are already in the post to her. And if she starts to believe for a while that tansy flowers are buttons for fairy jackets, I think that’s a small price to pay for her avoiding such hazards as nightshade and yew berries, and learning the good uses of blackberries, rowan, elderflowers, sloes…

Her grandmother also showed her some real peas growing in their pods after the arum berry incident. My niece’s first question was “Grandma, when will your peas be frozen?” Maybe now she’ll start thinking the fairies do the freezing.



Shoo Rayner said...

" And if she starts to believe for a while that tansy flowers are buttons for fairy jackets, I think that’s a small price to pay for her avoiding such hazards as nightshade and yew berries,"

Aw... Can't we have a short time in our lives when we believ that fairy buttons are made of tansy flowers. I still believe! :D

Lily said...

Me too... I used to leave out food for the fairies when I was little - and it was always gone in the morning!

Penny Dolan said...

Lily, this is such an excellent point to make, as well as the lovely reference (although I'm sorry your niece should have suffered such an uncomfortable warning.)

Such books - despite their girly aspects - do seed a learning and respect for the natural world into the growing child.

I wonder if are any books that create the natural world for children now, especially as there seems to be a move to publishing for less specific, global markets.

Has anyone any titles to offer?

Lily said...

I was trying to think of some contemporary non-fact books that have the same accuracy, Penny, and couldn't. it seems odd, considering how concerned we all are about the environment now. I too would love to hear anyone's suggestions for titles.

Nikki-ann said...

I hope your niece enjoys the books and learns from them.

I've started my niece & nephew on books as soon as they could hold an object... They're now 2 & 3, so I'm hoping their love for books continues. I must remember to throw in the lesson learning ones as they get older! :)

jongleuse said...

My just-turned 5 year old adores the flower fairies-luckily since we have these at the bottom of the garden growing under the old oak...
Hope she is fully recovered.

Kate said...

I learned about yew being poisonous from Monica Edwards' 'Summer of the Great Secret'! Lesley, temporarily in a wheelchair, stands up and walks to stop her/Tamzin's pony from eating a yew branch. I learned all sorts of things from Arthur Ransome, Antonia Forest started a lifelong interest in falconry, and yes, it's always useful to know how to get maple syrup and build a log cabin!
I'm glad your niece is OK - I think the RHS does a good list of common plants that are poisonous or have sap which can blister the skin.

Stroppy Author said...

I did find it a bit alarming she had never seen peas in a pod. Shelling peas is one of those great childhood pleasures. And if you don't grow them, you can still buy them in a supermarket!

So a plea for real vegetables as well as books :-)

Clare Sandling said...

Wow, how scary! The Brambley Hedge books show how nature changes through the seasons, that was one of my childhood favourites with the cutaway tree stumps and tiny little rooms.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Lawks! Glad she is recovered.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

In South Africa we have a book called The Fynbos Fairies which tells of all the local flora and of that marvellous flower of the Stapelia, the elf on a horse fly says,
"I like it. I like it. I like it a lot
that delicious stink of dead-meat rot"