The Lost Gardens of Heligan, near Mevagissey in Cornwall, were, for many years, very much lost. Once a thriving kitchen and flower garden run by a large team of staff, they became neglected and overgrown to such a degree that they were left hidden. In 1990 the gardens were rediscovered and thankfully brought back to life, and you can now visit and view them as they used to be.
The reason for the gardens becoming lost, forms the basis of this story A Song for Will and the Lost Gardeners of Heligan, written by Hilary Robinson and illustrated by Martin Impey.
When World War 1 broke out in 1914, most of the garden staff were enlisted to fight, and tragically, many of them never returned. Their names were scratched into the toilet wall of the gardens, and the discovery of these names led to much work tracking down old photos, documents and relations of those who used to work in the gardens. One such name, was Will, a kind and gentle soul who is at the very heart of this rather beautiful book.
I recently posted on Twitter that A Song for Will was the book that broke the blogger. It’s completely true. It is quite rare that I’m ever stuck for words, particularly when it comes to books! Yet, this one, has been a struggle to write about. Bear with me, let me, hopefully, show you why.
Hilary and Martin have been producing war based books since 2015, with Where the Poppies Now Grow, The Christmas Truce and Flo of the Somme. All stunning books which you must take a look at if you haven’t already.
We have shelves of war based books in our library as it’s an incredibly important topic, and Hilary and Martin’s books all stand out as a unique way of addressing it. This is because the combination of Hilary’s beautifully poetic writing, along with Martin’s soft and gentle, yet evocative, illustrations put the heart right back into the story. The tales of this harrowing time suddenly become all the more human, emotional and heartfelt. Facts and figures are of course very important, but for children to really understand the sacrifices made by our ancestors we need to go deeper, and this is where Hilary and Martin get it so very right every single time.
A Song for Will continues this pattern of expertly produced non-fiction, yet it is slightly different to the duo’s previous books.
Firstly, if you order now you can received the special, first edition of A Song for Will, and to begin with, before we even delve into the story, I have to say that this is a beautifully crafted book. It has a gorgeous vintage feel to it, and oozes quality with its royal blue colour and Martin’s stunning illustration on the cover, elements of which have been embossed to give a really luxurious feel. This book has been created with care and attention to the very last detail.
Whereas Hilary and Martin’s previous books were written in a poem style, A Song for Will is a more substantial read, and has been written in the form of letters between young gardener Alfie and his friend and fellow gardener, Fred, who has been enlisted, along with Will and other gardeners, to fight in the First World War.
This was such a clever way of approaching the storytelling in this book, as it provides the story from two, very different, points of view. We have Alfie and other staff members, who remain at home, struggling with the not insignificant effects of war upon their daily life, while remaining stoically optimistic. Missing their loved ones and colleagues, rationing, maintaining life with very little, and, of course, the fear. It’s a side of the war not always addressed very effectively in children’s books particularly.
From Fred’s point of view we see how things are for him out on the front line and all the difficulties he faces along with Will. Not just fighting on front lines, but dealing with other risks such as illness due to the poor living conditions, missing family and the effects of the war upon him and his dear friend Will, which are sensitively shown through Hilary’s delicate and subtle writing:- I noticed that Will’s hand was shaking – he must have been excited to be back.” (Alfie)
The writing has been perfectly pitchedfor children to allow openings for discussion about how the soldiers and loved ones felt during this time. The story is so carefully developed through the letter writing to show the stress that the soldiers must have experienced in a subtle way, through the eyes of a naive young gardener. The soldiers would come home and want to be the best for their loved ones, put on a brave face, yet all the while struggling to cope with PTSD and the trauma of what they may have seen and experienced. It is really quite heartbreaking to read between the superbly written lines of this story.
As for Martin Impey’s illustrations. I’m not entirely sure how to do them justice. Gently weaving through the written pages of letters, Martin has brought a world to life. A world that did actually exist at one time and suddenly, by reading through this book, you’re taken into the heart of. Each setting and location has its own distinctive atmosphere, the gardens bright and colourful, full of love and life and yet gradually changing as the war develops. Then the war scenes, startlingly different, stark and muted, the bravery and yet the fear crying out from the pages. Each character in A Song for Will is a little creation of character. I fell in love with every person in this story through Hilary’s words and Martin’s drawings, you quickly feel involved with everyone in the story as it plays out in your imagination.
I will happily admit to stroking my hand across many of the illustrations in A Song for Will, and I’m not sure why. In an attempt to bring the people back, to feel their emotions, to connect with them in some way? I really don’t know. I just know that this book took me by the hand into the intimate lives of some incredibly special people, including kind and gentle Will, who sadly never made it back from the war, and yet left a lasting impression on many people, least of all, thanks to this book, myself.
A Song for Will is perfect for the classroom, there is huge scope for discussion and project work. It’s perfect for libraries, for bookshelves at home, it is for children and adults, teachers, book lovers, illustration and art lovers, historians. A Song for Will is for everyone and anyone.
When Hilary and Martin get together on a book, magic happens every time, but A Song for Will is different again for the duo. It is incredibly apparent that this is a labour of love. Hilary and Martin are intensely passionate about this subject, they immerse themselves in the stories of the people they write about, and Will’s story, in particular, was no exception. This passion is reflected in every single page, every word written and every line drawn of this precious and emotional book. That is what makes it special. A Song for Will is a book with its very own heartbeat created by this astonishing writing and illustrating team.
A Song for Will and the Lost Gardeners of Heligan is available now from all good book shops and libraries now. Please get it, read it and love it even half as much as I do.
Thank you for reading this Book Monster Review.
To find out more about the Gardens of Heligan please visit their website here:
Author Hilary Robinson resides on the internet right here:
And illustrator Martin Impey can be found here: