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Little Boy Brown

The loneliest boy in New York

First published in 1949, the wondrous Little Boy Brown by Isobel Harris has been billed as the greatest book about childhood loneliness of all time. It tells the tale of  four-and-a-half-year-old Little Boy Brown himself, who leads a cosseted existence in a Manhattan hotel. Although his life is one of privilege and comfort, the boy’s parents are rarely home and he has no siblings. His only friends are the hotel waiters, doormen, and most of all, Hilda the chambermaid. Here he recounts the wonderful day that she took him to her house for tea.

Little Boy Brown’s parents appear to inhabit a hermetically sealed environment. Their hotel has its own tunnel to the Subway station, and the Subway trains go right into the buildings where they work. They never get any fresh air at all and delegate their son’s outings to the staff (who usually only walk the residents’ dogs)

On this particular winter’s day, Hilda takes him on a bus into the suburbs, where he spends the day with her family and is bedazzled by a different way of life. Enchanted by the notion of stairs instead of an elevator, Little Boy Brown walks up and down them eleven times. There are chores to help out with, a cake to bake, and a snowman to build in the garden, where our little hero is delighted by such beautiful ‘big clean snow’. City dwelling readers will guess that he’s probably more used to the dwindling slushy type.

In this charming book of delights, there are several touching moments. At one stage, Little Boy Brown admires the family canary, who is allowed to fly wherever he wishes. He doesn’t have to stay in his cage, unlike the little boy in his own gilded variety.

The tale is accompanied by the stunning illustrations of André François. So intricate and evocative are they, that combined with the poignant last page of the book, they leave a lump in the throat.

Little Boy Brown by Isobel Harris is published by Enchanted Lion Books, 49 pages.

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