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?
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.
(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?