Once Upon a Hillside

Written by Angela McAllister
Review by Helen Johnson

A hill.  A distinctive hill: a Down, with flower-spangled turf over white chalk, a stand of woods and a mound at its summit.

Upon this hill, over six thousand years, scamper seven children who lived, loved, and played there.  Their stories are sharp and sweet as the thyme-scented breeze.  The children live as children do: close to nature, away from the world of adults.  Animals, insects, birds, and resilient objects link the children over time.

Unlike much historical fiction for children, this book does not teach famous events.  Historical periods are subtly suggested by everyday details such as hunting for food, making an offering at a shrine, or moving from a smoky city.  But there are no dates, kings, or ‘historical events’.  The stories are timeless, each dealing with a child’s concerns of love and family, of making friends and belonging.

Like the stories, the children’s lives feel timeless, as each goes up onto the Down to work out their troubles.  Is it the child who brings about a heart-warming resolution?  Or is it magic? Or maybe a little bit of both?

It’s not quite certain.  What is certain is that the real character of this book is the hill.  It lives and breathes, not only through the stories, but also through charming illustrations that make this book one to linger over.  Butterflies flit, storms blow, flints glimmer.  Over thousands of years, the hill lives, with its trees and flowers and birds and animals, with wind and rain and sunshine.  The children are another strand of fleeting life that comes and goes, as the hill endures. A book for nature-lovers of all ages.