15 May 2009

Book of the Week (13): “Brother William’s Year: A Monk at Westminster Abbey” by Jan Pancheri

Jan Pancheri is a woman to be envied. Not only is she a talented artist but she is also Head Gardener at Westminster Abbey. She has illustrated other children’s books, but this one is about a subject so close to her heart, both as an artist, an employee of the Abbey and a gardener, that joy shines from every page.

Brother William is also the gardener at Westminster Abbey, but whereas Jan Pancheri, as the 2009 gardener, deals with tourists and schools and the difficulties of keeping gardens in our age of pollution, William lives in 1383 – and his difficulties are all about the rigours of being a monk, of producing enough food to feed his community and not falling asleep in matins. As we follow his year we find out about Benedictine life, about how the Abbey worked from day-to-day and most importantly, how the progression from Winter through Spring, Summer, Autumn and back to Winter shaped lives that were deeply in touch with nature.

This book is a luminous delight – the story is told simply, accessible enough for young readers yet interesting and amusing for anyone of any age. I suspect that Frances Lincoln, the publishers, see this as being for children aged between 5 and 10 – but I think it is perfect for anyone interested in picture books, gardening or simply understanding how our lives used to be guided by the seasons.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

• For good independent readers interested in monks and fast-paced stories, try Cherith Baldry’s Abbey Mysteries – start with The Buried Cross. The abbey involved is the one at Glastonbury.
• Or for more detail about a monk’s life, try Life in a Medieval Abbey by Tony McAleavy.
• Frances Lincoln publish some wonderful books that help kids to understand other lives – try the A Child’s Day series. Each one focuses on real child and simply follows a day in their lives. My favourites are Boushra's Day by Khaled El Dash (Egypt) and Iina Marja's Day by Jaakko Alatalo (Lapland) but try and read them all – I am!

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