Oxford University academic Tom Moorhouse knows more than most about water voles, the little creature immortalised by Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s iconic early 20th century children’s book Wind in the Willows.
The tiny mammal was once a much-loved and common sight in Britain’s waterways but since the 1970s, water vole numbers are thought to have declined by more than 90% making them a seriously endangered species.
So what better creature to star in a stunning debut novel – already being hailed as a children’s classic – from the pen of Dr Tom Moorhouse, a water vole expert in the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford’s zoology department?
The River Singers, a lyrical, emotion-packed story charting the trials and tribulations of an orphaned group of water voles, pays homage to the fragile beauty of the natural world as well as delivering a thrilling, action-packed adventure.
Yorkshire-born Moorhouse puts to work all his ecological knowledge, scientific magic and newly-discovered literary flair to conjure up an enchanting family of four feisty young water voles who must chart unknown waters when their mother is killed by one of their many predators.
Sylvan and his three water vole siblings, Orris, Fern and Aven, have never yet left the warm safety of their cosy burrow. His mother says they are all River Singers, water folk who live by the ways of the Great River whose mighty sweep takes their old and gives them young, stirs their hunger, feeds them with grasses and shelters them in her waters and burrows.
When they are finally allowed their first outing to the river bank, Sylvan is bowled over by the cold, delicious water, the mixture of odours and the taste of the sweet-grass stems but mother has a warning: ‘Every moment you spend in the open you need to be alert.’
And a few days later, Sylvan awakes in the night to hear something approaching the burrow… something dangerous, something deadly, something that makes his fur bristle with fear.
Knowing their lives are under threat and with their mother gone forever, Sylvan and his brother and sisters have no choice but to abandon their burrow and together they set out on an epic journey along the Great River.
But with fierce rivals and vicious predators – stoats, otters, foxes and smirking minks – lurking at every turn, will they all survive and will they ever find a safe place to call home?
The River Singers, aimed at children aged nine and over, has many themes tucked inside its iridescent outer shell… the value of human understanding, the rewards of kindness and the importance of seeing the other man’s point of view.
With its hundreds of beautiful black and white illustrations by Simon Mendez, a plot that combines pathos, peril and punchy dialogue in perfect harmony and with a message that sings out loud about the urgent need to protect our wildlife, this is an extra special book to read and treasure now and for years to come.
(Oxford University Press, paperback, £6.99)