A review of In the Beech Forest by Gary Crew and Den Scheer

Reviewed by Jenny Mounfield

In the Beech Forest
by Gary Crew & Den Scheer
Ford Street Publishing
Hardback PB Age: kids 10+
AUD $29.95, ISBN: 9781921665578

‘He was no ordinary boy, nothing special, and he went into the forest alone.’

And so begins an adventure, an awakening, a discovery of what it truly means to be alive for a child whose experiences of life and forests are confined to those found in virtual worlds. The boy may enter the ancient beech forest alone, but he carries in his mind all the blood-thirsty monsters of his games.

‘But as withered leaves shifted, and grey shadows lengthened, he hesitated, remembering his computer games, the fearful quests he encountered there, the dreadful heroes, the beasts unconquered, and he wondered if such wild fantasies might threaten here.’

As he continues on towards the forest’s heart, toy sword clutched in his fist, the boy is first tormented by the eerie silence, and then phantom rustlings that may very well be the sounds of fearsome pursuers. Perhaps the sticks beneath his feet are the bones of their prey. But the boy does not run; he is brave, and his bravery will be rewarded.

In the Beech Forest is pure magic. Crew’s language is delightfully poetic; read aloud, his words slip off the tongue. With a master’s hand reminiscent of the great Edgar Allan Poe, Crew builds tension line by line. So, too, he expertly creates a mood of contemplative expectancy in much the same way as a painter will layer dark washes over light to give the illusion of depth.

The illustrations, for the most part, are bold strokes of black on white with the occasional hint of sepia. They add a sense of stark foreboding to the text. As the boy nears the point of discovery, the sketches are imbued with red, a colour synonymous with life. Through her illustrations, Scheer takes the reader through a landscape that at first appears harsh and static, to one that can almost be seen breathing through the page. While there is no doubt that she is a gifted artist, Scheer’s true talent lies in her interpretive ability. This is particularly impressive given that this, her first book, was illustrated when she was only seventeen.

Despite the depictions of monsters, and the sense of creeping menace, In the Beach Forest is not a horror story. Indeed, classics such as, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel are far more disturbing. Any anxiety the text and illustrations may cause will soon be forgotten at the story’s uplifting conclusion. In these techno-times when our kids’ realm of experience seems to be largely virtual, Crew reminds us of the value to be found by immersing ourselves in the world of all our senses.

This title is perfect for reading to groups of children, and is certain to invite discussions from the effect electronic games have on our lives, to environmental matters. I believe kids as young as eight will gain both intellectually and emotionally from this story. At that tender age, I, for one, would have lapped this up. Highly recommended.

About the reviewer: Jenny Mounfield is the author of three novels and a number of short stories for young people and adults. She lives with her family in north of Brisbane Queensland.