by Tara DaPra
My secret pleasure of motherhood is the many children’s books I get to read, and my absolute favorite remains The Bog Baby by Jeanne Willis, with lush, narrative illustrations by Gwen Millward. This book, marketed for children 3-5, captures the magic of childhood and the wonder of wild spaces in a fable-like way. The Bog Baby also explores children’s anxieties when their adventure goes awry and follows the two sisters as they seek to correct their folly.
The book begins with the captivating first line, “Long ago, when we were little, me and Chrissy did something bad.” In turning the page, readers enter a dreamlike world: a two-page illustration depicts a forest of pink-leaved birch trees, its floor carpeted with ferns, fallen logs, and thousands of delicate bluebells. Two sisters have gone to the woods, unbeknownst to their parents. The story is narrated in a breathless first-person voice, capturing the child’s perspective: “We went fishing. All by ourselves. Which wasn’t allowed. Chrissy said there was magic in Bluebell Wood.” When the two arrive at the pond, “squelchy around the edge,” they begin to fish for newts but instead find the mythical bog baby: “He was as soft as jelly. Like he had no bones. When we stroked him, he flapped his wings. They were no bigger than daisy petals.”
The story continues as the girls take the blue bog baby home in a jam jar, hide him away in their shed, feed him cake crumbs, and sneak him into school. But when the bog baby becomes sickly, they must turn to their mother for help, and, ultimately, learn what it means to really love a creature. The story ends with when the grown narrator’s daughter finds the magic pond and carries on the search for bog babies.
But the book doesn’t end when the story concludes. Instead, the book’s final page provides a space for observational field notes, where readers can record their own bog baby discoveries, make note of its noises and favorite foods, and then send in their findings to the publisher – as if they were naturalists capturing sightings of an endangered species. A Google image search of the book’s titles yields delightful new iterations of the creature, from children’s drawings to primary school projects to a crocheted bog baby someone named Helen C crafted for a teacher. Clearly, this is a well-loved story.
Willis’ website features a Bog Baby blog, where she provides young readers (and their teachers) with “Hints and Tips on looking for Bog Babies,” like “When looking for Bog Babies, take great care not to disturb their habitat. If you turn over logs or stones, put them back exactly as you found them and make sure you don’t trample on plants and flowers as many creatures rely on them for survival.” At once, Willis encourages wonder while also teaching her readers to respect the habitat of wild places. In both the story itself and the adventures it inspires, The Bog Baby captures the very best of fiction: in creating a world, it drives us to be more curious, loving, and thoughtful in our own.