The Cranky Old Reader

I'm a Goodreads refugee, looking for a new home. Old books for children, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and humor are my main areas of interest. I've little interest in books that were written after 1975 or so, and prefer books that are older still. There are, however, a few still-living authors that I respect.

The Wind in the Willows (Barnes & Noble Classics)

The Wind in the Willows (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) - Kenneth Grahame, Gardner McFall This is one of the most lovely, funny, and beautiful books that I have ever read. I've been reading and re-reading it since I was quite young, and it always leaves me wanting more. Mole, Rat, Badger, and especially the ingenious and inimitable Mr. Toad are a perfect fusion of temperaments, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses. An odd shifting of tone from one chapter to the next nonetheless works perfectly, a rare alchemy that would have (and often has) turned leaden in the hands of a lesser author.But I won't be reviewing the book in great detail here. Instead, here's how Sebastian, my seven-year-old son, reacted to the story.I have to admit that I was worried that the book might be too advanced for him. And at first, my fears seemed prophetic: the story didn't seem to interest him very much, and he often asked to read something else (or read one of his own books to me). I had carefully picked an unabridged edition (TWitW is often abridged, with "The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" chapter being the most frequent casualty), but I found myself abridging the book on the fly. The language is truly lovely, but at Sebastian's age some of the longer descriptive passages just don't work.After struggling to read it to him for several weeks ("Dad, let's read something else tonight!") I picked up the book with the private resolution that if Sebastian didn't get more interested in it that night, I'd return it to the library and wait a year before trying again.And then Mole decided to make a private trek into the Wild Wood to meet Badger.I'd forgotten how frightening that section was! It's like a ghost story. Sebastian was riveted. From that point on, he was captivated; he even had me bring it in the car, so I could read it to him on the way to the train station (my wife was driving, of course). It took me a little while to work out the voices. Mole's is nasal and high, a bit like Terry Jones' when he's playing a silly part in Monty Python (ironically, Jones played Toad in a movie adaptation of the book, I believe). Rat is more mellifluous and a bit, well, educated; I keep thinking of "the playing fields of Eaton" when I'm reading him (not the actual fields, mind you; I've never seen them. I'm thinking of the phrase.)Badger is more gruff, deep, and direct (I think of Ed Asner's Lou Grant, but as a Brit). For Otter, I think of a British athlete, a "jock" type; cheerful, casual, and strong; a bit like Hugh Laurie, for some reason (obviously not when he's playing House).I should note that I'm NOT particularly trying to do British accents; I'm just letting the voices in my head shade the voices as I read them. So a tinge of accent creeps in, so to speak.Toad is the one character who gave me trouble. Eventually I decided that since Toad gets the best lines, and has the most emotional moments, I might as well use something close to my own voice - but pitched just a little higher, and with just a touch of melodrama. Toad is quite a ham, after all.For a seven-year-old, Toad is clearly the favorite of the book. That "his" chapters alternate with other ones was sometimes a small problem - but even so, during (for example) the Toad-free "Dulce Domum" chapter in which Mole's nose and heart are temporarily recaptured by the smells of his old home (a truly heartrending scene) Sebastian's interest remained strong enough to carry him through to the next chapter. Without question, the high point comes in Chapter X, "The Further Adventures of Toad". Toad's incredibly funny song, his escapes and adventures, his highs and lows are all perfect grist for the child reader/listener (and for the parent who loves reading dramatically to their child, for that matter).The final two chapters cap the book off perfectly. Any properly bloodthirsty child will revel in the passages in which piles of pistols, swords, and cudgels are amassed for each animal to use in the battle to come. Tiptoeing along the secret passage, the battle itself...this is the sort of thing children love, when it's well-told. And it is perfectly written here.I will confess that the reform of Toad is not quite believable (Sebastian confidently told me that Toad would not stay reformed). And the ending comes just a little too quickly. I have always wished as soon as I finished the book that there was more - and so did Sebastian. I know that sequels have been written by some modern-day author; I tried to read one of them, but at the time it didn't quite work for me. Some day, perhaps, I'll try it again...but maybe not. It would be more rewarding to simply re-read The Wind in the Willows once again.

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