Is The Wind in the Willows a children’s book that adults like, or an adults’ book which is appropriate for children? Well, according to Wikipedia1, the book did in fact start (as with so many other children’s stories!) from bedtime tales Grahame told to his own son.
For those not into Victorian/Edwardian classics: The Wind in the Willows is the story of animals living in, on and around a languid river in rural pre-World War I England, when life itself was almost unimaginably slowmoving by modern standards. As the book begins, Mole tosses up his spring cleaning and succumbs to the lure of the wafting spring breezes and runs off to the Wide World Beyond. The first ‘person’ he meets upon his emergence into the bright breezy sunny outside is, of course, the Water Rat, who promptly invites him on a picnic. Life among the animals is not all languid picnics on sunny afternoons in river meadows; the seasons change and ill tidings befall the animals, though all comes right in the end: Mole is lost and found in the woods when he goes in search of the reclusive Badger and Otter’s child is found by Pan when he is carried off in a river eddy, and, of course, there’s Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, wealthy dilettante whose fancy is caught by every passing fancy, lastly and most unfortunately, The Motor Car and the Lure of the Open Road. After being jailed as a result of one too many fines resulting from this latest fad, he returns home to a hall possessed by the Stoats and the Weasels.
Have kids changed all that much in the last hundred years? Possibly, but I can’t imagine how. I’d hazard a guess that the change in children’s literature is due to a couple of other changes in society and education: the assumption of universal literacy–we all need to read at the same level by the same age–and the assumption of what’s appropriate in children’s literature, both the language and the subject matter. Frankly, I can’t imagine any Victorian or Edwardian author coming out with Captain Underpants…you? As for universal literacy and the requirements for same in the modern world, I’d hazard a guess that the “reluctant readers” of the Edwardian era and prior simply didn’t read. In an era when even doctors and lawyers weren’t required to have anything remotely resembling the education they do today, there would have been far more more jobs about then for people who’d managed a grade school education by the skin of their teeth and never laid a hand on a scrap of reading material once they’d left school. Schools and libraries weren’t so likely to feel the need to lure people in with the temptation of reading lowbrow stuff2.
I can understand why people wouldn’t like The Wind In The Willows. The language is outdated. It’s set 100 years ago in a land foreign to anyone who came of age in the post-Vietnam era, much less the high speed modern time. It’s about anthropomorphic animals. It’s slow. It’s sentimental, and sentimentalized, even by the standards of the decidedly soppy Edwardian era. Then again, there are more than a few of us who would like nothing more than to spend a dreamy summer’s day on the river just messing about in boats and picnicking in meadows with newfound friends:
The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leaned back blissfully into the soft cushions. ‘WHAT a day I’m having!’ he said. ‘Let us start at once!’
‘Hold hard a minute, then!’ said the Rat. He looped the painter through a ring in his landing-stage, climbed up into his hole above, and after a short interval reappeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon-basket.
‘Shove that under your feet,’ he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.
‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly. ‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater——’
To which I can only (still) cry “Wait for me!” (whimpers)
1take that with as many grains of salt as you like
2stop looking at me like that. Have I ever mentioned my penchant for V.C. Andrews?