Monday, April 16, 2007


The Piper at the Gates of the 21st Century

So, last week Monica Edinger, who writes the most excellent blog, Educating Alice, gave her opinions on the new BBC production of The Wind in the Willows, but moved on to broader questions as to the relevancy of the book in today's kidlit world:

The story has such a dated feel; it is very much about a bunch of old boys (in the British public school tradition) and no girls “messing about,” there is some ugly class commentary (when you get to those inhabitants of the Wild Wood), one of the oddest odes to paganism or something ever, and there is hardly a female to be seen (not surprising since it sort of replicates a boys’ school).
I don't quite get the connection between Grahame's characters and British public schools -- unless Edinger meant to point out that the four main animal characters come off as wealthy upper-crust Brits. But to answer the question: how relevant are the adventures of Mole, Badger, Ratty, and Toad today?

First, I'll be the first to admit that Grahame's novel is not for every kid. There's some pretty fancy prose on display in this book, and the fact that we are given two completely different storylines -- the lyrical forest adventures of Mole and Rat, and the comic adventures of Mr. Toad -- with different moods and pacing. There are action-packed chapters followed by sequences in which almost nothing happens. The effect can be jarring, especially for kids listening to the story aloud.

And yeah, it's a shame that there aren't any assertive female characters, but to tell the truth, when I read this as a kid, I didn't see the characters as being particularly male or female, but as animals. Androgynous animals, whose gender didn't seem to apply to them as it does to humans.

I don't quite get Edinger's connection between Grahame's characters and British public schools -- unless Edinger meant to point out that the four main animal characters come off as wealthy, clubby upper-crust Brits. I don't know if Grahame intended for the four animal characters to come off as quite so snobbish as they might to some readers. Keep in mind that there is more economic diversity between them than you might think -- Mole, with his almost-abandoned burrow, seems solidly middle-class, while Mr. Toad is the quintissential foppish aristocrat. As for me, I never got the impression that the animals were anything but old-fashioned, close friends.

I am fortunate to have a own copy of First Whisper of The Wind in the Willows, edited by Grahame's wife Elspeth, which contains all of the letters that Grahame wrote to his son, Alistair, in which the book's stories were first created. Naturally, there aren't nearly as many descriptive passages in the letters as in the book, and in the beginning there are far more animal characters, including a sty of silly pigs.

Rereading these letters, I personally get the impression that Grahame was more interested in creating a fantasic world of talking animals for his son than he was in replicating upper class Edwardian life. The notion that there may be a hidden world of genteel forest creatures is part of what still makes this book appealing. It's the same feeling that I think is still echoed in a lot of today's animal fantasies, such as Russel Erickson's A Toad for Tuesday, Cynthia Rylant's Thimbleberry Stories and perhaps even Kate DiCamillo's Tale of Despereaux. Likewise, I think the lyrical sequences of the book have a direct descendant in Randall Jarrell's The Animal Family.

However, the crux of the matter over the book's relevancy seems to lie in this: Grahame's skill at evoking the beauties of nature, the comforts and connections to one's own home, and the a fascination with forest animals, is still as evocative now as it was in 1908. In an increasingly nature-deprived world, I think there's nothing better for kids than to revel in a description of woods, rivers, and the luxury of getting absorbed in the outdoors.

Likewise, whenever I find a child -- or myself -- coveting the latest technological gadget, I'm always of a mind to sit us down for a ride on Mr. Toad's motorcar. In an era in which we are increasingly encouraged to upgrade our material lives, the misadventures of Mr. Toad seems more necessary than ever. The next time you experience a power failure, and find yourself tearing out your hair from e-mail deprivation, get out the candles and spend some time "messing about in boats." It'll do you good.

8 comments:

Monica Edinger said...

Enjoyed reading your take on this book (which, I hope was clear in my post, I love). My "old boys" reference was because of the BBC production that really seemed to emphasize that. There is a tradition of school stories (e.g. Tom Brown's Schooldays), understandable since British boys were typically sent off at young ages.

I always identified with Mole so the production with its emphasis on Toad was lacking for me.

I think anyone who truly loves a book can communicate what makes that book great to kids. I'm able to do it myself with Alice's Adventures and bet you could with Wind in the Willows.

Are you on child_lit? There were some interesting posts there on this production and book.

Brooke said...

I'm on child_lit, but I don't often have time to read the posts.

And yes -- I am familiar with the British school story. In fact, I spent a few weeks living down the road from the school Grahame himself attended as a young boy. (Oh, rats - - the name completely escapes me now.)

Hey, thanks for responding to my post. I never know if my thoughts are just sailing out into the proverbial void or not, and it's always good to know that intelligent people are tuning in.

Monica Edinger said...

I still would argue the book is about kids going off on their own and playing (Ratty and Mole one way and Toad another). Certainly didn't think that as a kid, but it made a lot of sense to me now.

My sense from the child_lit posts is that this book works best for kids today when read to them young. The slightly older ones tend to go for Toad's adventures mostly. Do you have a lot of kids reading it today?

Josephine Cameron said...

I haven't yet figured out whether it was Wind in the Willows and similar books that sparked my love of nature, or whether my love of nature was what made me enjoy Wind in the Willows so much. I agree that in today's mile-a-minute world, books like this are more relevant than ever before. Yes, it's oddly structured. Yes, I do think there's a bit of old-fashioned "old boys" thread throughout. But ultimately, it's a book about friendship and enjoying life and knowing what home is and how leaving your comfort zone can make you appreciate both "home" and "away" (other people's homes) in a deeper way. Which is a long-winded way of saying: yes, I think it's still relevant. Thanks for the lovely post!

Brooke said...

Are kids reading the book today?

Hard to answer that question -- I don't poll kids on their reading habits at the library -- but the book is frequently missing from the shelves.

Like many books which are regarded as "classics" of children's literature, I suspect that many young readers are guided to Willows by an older friend or teacher. As I wrote before, it isn't for every child, but those who love it never forget it.

I have talked to a few kids who have read this book, and when I asked them what they thought, they almost always talk about the toast-eating scene when Mr. Toad is in prison. They're right -- that's one of the most beautiful descriptions of toast ever written.

In fact, when I read Willows in fourth grade, I insisted on having hot buttered toast with honey on top as my breakfast for weeks afterwards. (My mom, who had never read the book, couldn't figure me out.)

There's something earthy, simple, and truthful about this book that keeps people returning to it as they would to a fireside, a comfortable chair, or a favorite meal.

(Hmmm. Do I have any honey in the pantry?)

amy said...

Was doing a search and happened to wander into this site.
Wind in the Willows was, and still is, my favorite childrens' book. Perhaps because it is the only one my Mom sat down and diligently read to me (as she was instructed to do by a dear friend who sent the book)
But there has always been such a special impact in the part where Mole is lost, and wanders home. And teh illustration of the Carolers at his door. Something about that grabbed my very young heart and it still has a hold today.
I see Toad as more of an annoyance in teh story. Someone who needs to learn his lesson well. But Mole is innocent, and humble. A bother perhaps but still a warm sweet soul.
Perhaps, even as a young child (who was deemed nothing but a bother to her Mother) I could identify with Mole and dreamed for a homecoming in the chill yet gentleness of winter

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