November 1

Classic Kid’s Books

The Wind in the Willows

When I was a kid I loved to read and one of the happiest day of my life, up until then, was when I got my library card. My parents were happy to recommend books, many of which have stood the test of time. My all-time favourite was, and still is, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

The Wind in the Willows is a children’s book, first published in 1908. Alternatingly slow-moving and fast-paced, it focuses on four anthropomorphised animals:

Mole: known as “Moley” to his friends. An independent, timid, genial, thoughtful, home-loving animal, and the first character introduced in the story.

Rat: known as “Ratty” to his friends (though actually a water vole), he is sophisticated, charming and affable. Ratty loves the river and befriends Mole. He is persistently loyal and does the right thing when needed such as when he risks his life to save Mole in the Wild Wood and to help rid Toad Hall of the weasels.

Mr. Toad: known as “Toady” to his friends, the wealthy scion of Toad Hall who inherited his wealth from his late father. Although gregarious and well-meaning, as a fixated control freak he is inclined to get above himself and act rude. He is prone to obsessions (such as punting, houseboats, and horse-drawn caravans), but gets dissatisfied with each of these activities and drops them fairly quickly, finally settling on motorcars.

Mr. Badger: a firm but relaxed and considerate animal, Badger embodies the “wise hermit” figure. A friend of Toad’s deceased father, he is strict with the immature Toad, yet hopes that his good qualities will prevail. He lives in a vast underground sett, part of which incorporates the remains of a buried Roman settlement. A fearless and powerful fighter, Badger helps clear the Wild-Wooders from Toad Hall with his large stick.

A bit of history about the author:

Kenneth Grahame was born on 8 March 1859 in Edinburgh. When he was 5, his mother died from puerperal fever and his father, who had a drinking problem, gave over the care of his four children to their grandmother, who lived in Cookham Dean in Berkshire. There they lived in a spacious but dilapidated home, The Mount, in extensive grounds by the Thames, and were introduced to the riverside and boating by their uncle, David Ingles, the curate at Cookham Dean church.

At Christmas 1865, the chimney of the house collapsed and the children moved to Fern Hill Cottage in Cranbourne, Berkshire. In 1866, their father tried to overcome his drinking problem and took the children back to live with him in Argyll, Scotland, but after a year they returned to their grandmother’s house in Cranbourne, where Kenneth lived until he entered St. Edward’s School, Oxford, 1868. During his early years at St. Edwards, the boys were free to explore the old city with its quaint shops, historic buildings and cobbled streets, St. Giles’ Fair, the idyllic upper reaches of the Thames and the nearby countryside.

Grahame married Elspeth Thomson, the daughter of Robert William in 1899, when he was 40. The next year they had their only child, a boy named Alastair (whose nickname was “Mouse”) born premature, blind in one eye and plagued by health problems throughout his life. When Alastair was about four years old, Grahame would tell him bedtime stories, some of which were about a toad, and on his frequent boating holidays without his family he would write further tales of Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger in letters to Alastair.

In 1908, Grahame retired from his position as secretary of the Bank of England. He moved back to Berkshire, where he had lived as a child, and spent his time by the River Thames, doing much as the animal characters in his book do – to quote, “simply messing about in boats” – and expanding the bedtime stories he had earlier told his son Alastair into a manuscript for the book.

The novel was in its 31st printing when A.A. Milne adapted part of it for the stage as Toad of Toad Hall in 1929. The first film adaptation was produced by Walt Disney as one of two segments in the 1949 package film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Numerous adaptations in film and television have followed since.

In 2003, The Wind in the Willows was listed at #16 in the BBC’s survey The Big Read. More than a century after its original publication, it was adapted again for the stage, as a 2014 musical by Julian Fellowes (the creator of the television series Downton Abbey).

The Wind in the Willows is available through vendors like Amazon and Indigo. My version of the book was published in 1953 and has many charming illustrations (by Ernest H. Shepard) scattered throughout its 159 pages. I would love to be able to duplicate them here, but copyright law forbids me from doing so.

I hope you get a copy of this wonderful children’s book and read it to your children. In this age of electronic mayhem it is sometimes refreshing to step back a bit and enjoy a good read.


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