fiction favorites…The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

The Rat said nothing, but stooped and unfastened a rope and hauled on it; then lightly stepped into a little boat which the Mole had not observed.  It was painted blue outside and white within, and was just the right size for two animals; and the Mole’s whole heart went out to it at once, even though he did not yet fully understand its uses.
The Rat sculled smartly across and made fast.  Then he held up his fore-paw as the Mole stepped gingerly down.  ‘Lean on that!’ he said. ‘Now then, step lively!’ and the Mole to his surprise and rapture found himself actually seated in the stern of a real boat.
‘This has been a wonderful day!’ said he, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. ‘Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.’
‘What?’ cried the Rat, open-mouthed: ‘Never been in a — you never –well, I — what have you been doing, then?’
‘Is it so nice as all that?’ asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.
‘Nice? It’s the only thing,’ said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. ‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

The Wind in the Willows is a masterpiece of literature; I feel a bit nervous about “reviewing” it here.  So, I will attempt to say less rather than more, my main point being that if you have not read this aloud to your children, put it on your to-read list now!

The characters of Ratty and Mole, Badger and Otter, and the saucy Mr. Toad are, of course, some of the most known and beloved in children’s literature.  Kenneth Grahame has drawn them so keenly that we feel very quickly upon meeting each of them that we know them well, that we have actually met them before, or their human counterparts, that they are familiar as well-worn slippers and dear to us in all their eccentricities.

The main course of the book follows their wonderfully-mundane small lives, centered upon their homes, and their consternation and interventions in the unruly escapades of Mr. Toad.  It is an utterly transporting story filled with the deep warmth of home and fireside, and of rich, loyal, accepting friendships which we all long for.  There is a delightful helping of the ridiculous due to Toad’s antics, a nice side-dish of danger and thrill emanating from the Wild Wood and Weasels, yet all is anchored in the shared picnic baskets and easy chairs and lollygagging upon the River that fills the story with such immense comfort and security.  Herein lies the delights of reading this book aloud to your younger children; you get to share together in this delightful world, in these characters whom you will forever think of fondly.

Nature, too, is one of the key players in this tale.  That deep love for the English countryside which underlies a good number of British stories flows through the entire book.  Here, “wildflowers” don’t appear, but instead purple loosestrife, willow-herb, comfrey and day-rose.  Nuances of sunset and morning mist, shadow and meadow are described.  I love how this creates a tone and setting so vividly, as well as the way I find that I attend more purposefully to the natural world around me.  There’s a lot for older readers (adults) to reflect on in Grahame’s depictions of Nature, especially in the section of the story when Ratty and Mole meet Pan himself — a challenging bit for most of us, to be honest — yet the young child can shelve that away and simply enjoy the story and setting at face value.

Grahame’s vocabulary is challenging.  Despite the animal cast, which may lead people to view this as a childish story, it is not essentially childish; it is a book that adults will appreciate immensely.  It is not a book to hand to a beginning reader.  However, don’t let the sophisticated sentence structures and vocabulary prevent you from reading this aloud with your young children,  even as young as kindergarten depending upon their listening skills.  I have found through the years that well-written stories carry listeners through the unfamiliar words, and that children gain rich vocabularies in the very best way by encountering new words in context.   (I will never forget my 2-year-old telling her dad that he looked “so handsome and distinguished” after having listened to James Marshall’s George and Martha stories!) You don’t need to bother stopping to explain or define words as you go; that just loses the flow of the story and the rhythm of the prose; let them stop you if they like.

This is one of those stories that’s been illustrated by so, so many folk.  I certainly have not seen all the editions out there.  I am partial, though, to the illustrations of Ernest Shepard, the same man who gave us the magnificent Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations.  I think perhaps I like them so much because his simple, pen and ink drawings evoke the humble, friendly core of Grahame’s characters’ lives so perfectly, and leave all the rest of it to our imaginations.  There are numerous full-color, elaborately illustrated editions as well, if you prefer.

Truly, this is a book not to be missed.  Read it aloud.  Read it for yourself.  But read it, and fall in love with this dear place and treasured characters.

Here’s an Amazon link to the Shepard-illustrated edition: The Wind in the Willows