Saturday, March 21, 2009

Beyond the Wild Wood ....

Kenneth Grahame, the author of The Wind in the Willows, was born 150 years ago this March. Meghan Cox Gurdon wonders whether the book still holds up as one to read aloud to young children:
I think it is fair to say that The Wind in the Willows remains a genuine classic, without which no one can emerge from childhood with complete cultural literacy. It’s not so fundamental as a fairy tale; Toad’s deceits, funny as they are, don’t rank alongside Cinderella or Rapunzel for resonance or durability. Nor does it mark a child an ignoramus not to know that it was Ratty who famously said there is “nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Yet Kenneth Grahame’s idyll nonetheless belongs in that quirky canon of books that are essential furnishings in the mind of the educated child.

On the same shelf you would find, inter alia, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s no crime to dislike any of them, but not to know them is to have gaps in one’s knowledge. ....

Half the pleasure of Grahame’s story is the way he writes it; his descriptions of nature, at their best, get at its beauty with delightful precision. Much loved and quoted, for example, is this early passage in which Mole throws off spring cleaning, strikes out on a walk, and suddenly finds himself at the edge of a river: “Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again.” ....

For those families who read aloud and often, there is no real question: Of course you must read The Wind in the Willows, and if you happen to skip the odd elaborate descriptive paragraph, well, who’s to know? ....
And if you don't have young children, read it again yourself. It is one of those "children's" books that can be enjoyed as much, or more, by adults. And, for my money, the best illustrator was Ernest H. Shepard who also created the definitive illustrations for the Pooh books.

National Review, April 6, 2009, pp.45-47.

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