The Wind in the Willows

Hello, friends. This week, I’d like to talk about my five-year-old’s favourite book, The Wind in the Willows. I realize I’m not revealing any kind of secret, here. Everybody has heard of The Wind in the Willows. First published in 1908, it’s a classic of children’s literature. Its most famous illustrator is Ernest H. Shepard (who also drew the “decorations” for Winnie the Pooh. There are some lovely links to images here in the Bodleian Library’s collection). What more is there to say?

The Wind in the Willows, classic edition

Well, did you know that it was first published without illustrations? Or that I had never read it until recently? And that my English husband had only been exposed to it as a film, during his childhood? Travesty and deprivation and humiliation, I know! What kind of ignoramuses are we, anyway?

Despite this gaping cultural hole in our childhoods, we gave our son a copy of The Wind in the Willows this past Christmas. But he wasn’t ready for the full-text classic version that we chose, which included Shepard’s illustrations in black-and-white. So I picked up a shorter, more generously illustrated edition from the public library, just as a placeholder. It was an atrocious abridgement: capricious, rife with comma splices and ambiguous pronoun references, and in a few places simply nonsensical. And still, for our son, it was love at first sight. All his other favourites were instantly swept aside. We read the book in an unbroken cycle, every night before bed. Whenever there was a lull in the day, he would appear with the book under his arm, saying, “Can we read a bit of The Wind in the Willows?” And while I had a low opinion of the editorial work, I figured it was just about tolerable.

Then my son was invited to a birthday party and insisted that his gift be a copy of his favourite book. What to do? We couldn’t possibly recommend the edition we were perpetually reading. After an initial stumble (Nick picked up the only in-stock edition at our local indie bookseller. It was the Oxford World’s Classics edition, complete with scholarly introduction and end notes! For a child turning six!), we all cheered with joy and relief when we found the Candlewick Press edition, abridged and richly illustrated in full colour by Inga Moore.

The Wind in the Willows, illus. Inga Moore

(This is a good point at which to make my statement of possible conflict of interest. Yes, Candlewick Press is my publisher. But I had no idea this edition existed until I found it at my local Chapters. I have since bought three copies with my own money and will almost certainly buy more. I need this book to stay in print forever.)

So, Inga Moore’s illustrations. There are roughly 100 of them, and every single one is done with love and wit and tenderness. They are astonishingly beautiful, and it’s rare to find a page unadorned. A purist might object that having so many illustrations doesn’t leave much to the imagination, but we are spellbound. The light. The landscape. The sheer glee.

I haven’t yet read the classic version of the story so I can’t say anything authoritative about this shorter version, but there is so much lovely language and wry humour here. Moore’s abridgement seems sensitive and respectful, and the chapters have a distinct shape to them. (Moore also preserves the social snobberies of the original. Look out for Toad excoriating the “common, fat bargewoman!” and expurgate as necessary!) For anyone wondering which version of The Wind in the Willows holds the most delight for a younger child, I say this one. This one.

I know my son is not yet six, but The Wind in the Willows has become the most important book of his short life. He carries the characters around with him, like friends. He whispers phrases from the book under his breath, and folds them into his solo play. He deliberately misquotes lines from the book, making them fit whatever situation he’s currently in. He’s not just in love; he’s besotted and possessed and deeply altered by his encounter with this book. As a bookish parent, could I ask for any richer delight?

Friends, do you have a Wind in the Willows story to share?

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8 Responses to “The Wind in the Willows”

  1. Starstruck says:

    I disliked that book intensely as a child. It was the first book I read where I absolutely could not STAND one of the main characters. Very few books I’ve encountered since have engendered such immense loathing in me.

    Based on your post, part of me wants to reread it and see what my fuss was all about, but the rest of me is calling me an idiot for even considering it.

  2. Khai says:

    I was just reading that part of the book to your son and daughter (about the washerwoman and the subsequent horse thieving) and was quite surprised as I had no recollection at all about Toad’s abusive nature. It’s the original Grand Theft Auto!

    I also find it hilarious that he loves it as a five year old, and I read it in Grade 5. I remember liking it, but not anywhere close to the same degree. That any book has clearly touched him so deeply, however, is simply fantastic.

  3. Amber says:

    I adore the Wind in the Willow stories! Not sure when I first read or saw them but I own the VHS versions of the TV series and recently purchased the wonderful new graphic novel version published by Paperkutz. There is also a nice colour illustrated version with art by Robert Ingpen. It is probably better for slightly older child but the language and the art go together perfectly.

    My favourite story from the book is when Mole returns to his modest home for Christmas…makes me cry every time. Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home!

    Did you know there is a sequel, published a few years ago and with the permission of the author’s estate, by Jacqueline Kelly? It is called Return to the Willows and is published by Henry Holt in a lovely colour illustrated version, similar to the Ingpen one I mentioned above.

    I see we have at least one beginning chapter book based on the stories too. The one in our library is “Wind in the Willows: A Fine Welcome” written by Susan Hill and published by Square Fish.

    So happy to see your son has learned a love of stories and language and good books at such a young age. :)

  4. Ying says:

    Starstruck, I am fascinated by your “immense loathing”! Was it Toad you couldn’t stand? He does combine most of the worst aspects of toddlerhood and adolescence. Khai, I had no idea you read it in Gr 5… :) Amber, thank you for telling me about the Paperkutz edition AND the sequel! I’d not heard of either but will definitely be checking them out. We have the film adaptation with Vanessa Redgrave and Michael Palin, which we enjoy.

  5. Leanne says:

    Your post is quite timely as I’m just about to start reading The Wind in the Willows to my boys. (We finished Charlotte’s Web tonight.) I realize the copy I have, a children’s Classic by Bloomsbury Books has no pictures! This will not be popular with my kids, so thank you for the suggestions for an illustrated copy.

  6. Ying says:

    Oh, I hope your boys enjoy it, Leanne!

  7. Starstruck says:

    Oh yes, Ying, it was Toad, of course. I could not understand why Rat and Mole would want to associate with him. I can’t remember what age I was when I read it (I know I read it myself), but I was bullied most of my childhood, and this book just took me back to bad places.

  8. Ying says:

    Oh, Starstruck, I’m so sorry to hear that you were bullied. Your point opens up a new way of reading Toad, for me. I think he’s pathetic and obnoxious, but I’d always read Rat’s attitude towards him as affectionately condescending and paternalistic. Badger is certainly something of a stern uncle. I’ll have to go back and see if Toad strikes me as a bully, now.

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