Keeping Henry by Nina Bawden – an author who is a firm favourite on the Modern Classics list – is one of the first of her books to be reissued by Virago for a younger audience, complete with new illustrations by Alan Marks. First published in 1988, the Observer calls it ‘a subtle and many-layered story, one of Nina Bawden’s best’. The aim of the new Virago series for children, which will expand to twenty titles at the end of 2017, is to publish ‘timeless tales with beautiful covers that will be treasured and shared across the generations’. Other titles upon the list as it currently stands are a charming mixture, ranging from the likes of E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beautiful The Secret Garden.
Keeping Henry revolves around a young squirrel, who is found by a wartime family who have relocated from London to Wales, after the youngest son Charlie accidentally catapults him out of his nest. Unable to be released back into the wild, the family keep the squirrel as one of their own, and swiftly name him Henry. Keeping Henry is, in part, based upon Bawden’s own childhood, as she herself kept an abandoned squirrel as a pet, and was, like the family in the novel, evacuated to rural Wales during the Second World War. The blurb plays upon this, describing Keeping Henry as a ‘winning combination’ between an evacuee and family story, and an ‘unlikely, mischievous pet’. Indeed, the family within Keeping Henry were: ‘upturned from their old life just as Henry was “tipped out” of his nest.’
Keeping Henry, which is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed girl, opens in the following manner: ‘My brothers, Charlie and James, have always blamed me for what happened to Henry. Even now, years and years later, Charlie still says it was my fault.’ Her ‘sharp-eyed’ brother ‘had spotted the nest high in the tree by the brook; who watched for a while, several days, and then fetched his friends, Tommy and Stan, and his big brother’s catapult. A lucky shot for a little boy only seven years old, though not as lucky, of course, for the squirrels.’ Thankfully, the boys’ mother is accommodating, and does not mind looking after stray or lost creatures: ‘She was mad about animals. Sometimes I thought that she preferred them to people. Except for Charlie, of course; her baby, her favourite.’
As one familiar with Bawden’s work may have come to expect, Keeping Henry does include a level of psychological insight about the family, and their circumstances. Charlie particularly is shown as being troubled by their uprooting to rural Wales: ‘Charlie had heard the bomb fall, and although it was three years now since we had left the city to live on this farm in the country, he still jumped and went pale when a tractor backfired or Mr Jones, the farmer, was out shooting rabbits’. Whilst such occurrences are not shied away from, there are some wonderful evocations of the countryside within the pages of Keeping Henry.
Children are set to learn information about red squirrels as they read, and will come to care immensely for the animated Henry and his fate. Bawden’s children’s books add something a little different to the genre; they are sweet but also witty, a little quaint at times but not old-fashioned, and as knowledgeable as they are perceptive. Bawden characteristically deals with a lot of issues in Keeping Henry, but the main thread here is displacement; the children are away from their home and their father, who is in the Navy, just as Henry has lost his family and his nest. Marks’ whimsical illustrations are comical and sweet, and fit well with the text. Keeping Henry is sure to delight both nature-loving and thoughtful children, and to charm adults just as much.