I have read to my kids for years, and we certainly have our favorites. When they were little, we read several picture books every night, and I bought new books tirelessly. We amassed a pretty impressive library of picture books, if I do say so myself. In fact, now that they are 14 and 16, I have gone through the picture books several times to cull from them books we no longer need. Part of my agreement with myself to buy ALL THE BOOKS requires me to share those we’re truly done with; I give them to teachers to pass on to their students who don’t have enough books. Just recently, though, I went through for what turned out to be the last time. We have reached a point where I can’t part with any more picture books. All that are left, I adore, either because of the story on its own merit, or for some happy memory reading it to my kids.
For a few years after they outgrew picture books, we’d still occasionally read some on one night, just to be retro and remember what those stories were and who we were when we first encountered them. But mostly we’ve moved on (well, they have. I’m seriously not letting another picture book out of my house. The ones we have left are all required.) We moved through “chapter books” to what I regard as real novels, and as they got older, I started reading them adult literature as well. Beowulf. The Ramayana. The Lord of the Rings. The Iliadand the Odyssey. A Tale of Two Cities. Somewhere after our Homer-fest, we decided it was time to revisit a children’s classic and take things down a notch. We chose The Wind in the Willows.
You may not be surprised to learn the person who decides to hang on to 400-odd picture books might be in the market for the most delightful edition of such a classic as The Wind in the Willows. In fact, I occasionally troll Amazon.com for new editions of many favorites, especially those which are or can be illustrated. Such a find was this: last year for my birthday I bought myself the Collector’s Edition 2014 reprint of this book in a charming, small, hardback edition with gilt edges and the real feature—illustrations by Arthur Rackham. (You may also not be surprised to learn I have favorite illustrators and a propensity to track down their work like a bloodhound.) This particular edition also includes an introduction by A. A. Milne—another treasure—and I read it aloud to my kids too. I reproduce the best part here:
“One can argue over the merits of most books, and in arguing understand the point of view of one’s opponent. One may even come to the conclusion that possibly he is right after all. One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character.” (10)
With that daunting description in mind, we returned to a book we (fortunately) all remembered loving. But this time it was quite a different experience. The first time I read it they were too young—maybe 5 and 7—and couldn’t follow the British expressions very well. The second time was perfect—around 8 and 10—and everyone adored it. They giggled in all the right places and loved the characters like real friends… like Christopher Robin loved Pooh and Piglet, now I think of it. But this time they were big, and the book, we thought, had stayed little. This was a return.
We began by remembering favorite scenes and characters. Dad’s favorite characters were Ratty and Otter. (Dad cares very much about character and less about symbolism or plot or setting.) The girly remembered the least, being the youngest, and encouraged us to read the story and not reminisce. The story begins with Mole, as he becomes disgruntled with spring cleaning and bursts out of his hole in to the sunshine, on the riverbank where the rest of the story will take place. The girly was all over this. “Oh my gosh, mom. You’re so Moley.” I don’t disagree with this statement, but I was curious. Was it my lack of interest in housework or my jubilation in nature, as Mole “jump[s] off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living, and the delight of spring without its cleaning” (12), or something else she was responding to? “All of it. Mostly your happy willingness to do stuff and to make everything an adventure. Everything makes him happy. That’s you.” This was not going to be a reading like last time.
From that scene on, every time a new character was introduced, he (yes, all the characters are he’s) was immediately claimed or ascribed to another member of the family. Dad IS Otter. The girly thought she was Badger—an introvert who hides with his books in his little, cozy cave was what first attracted her, and as we got deeper she did not disown the problem-solving, authority-bearing figure Badger becomes. She embraced it and took it as a logical corollary of the first description. My son identified with Ratty—very much in the moment, deeply involved in his interests (“Ratty’s just a river-geek!”), and a kind and thoughtful friend. No one owned up to Toady. J
This desire to find themselves in the text was not present when we read years ago. There may have been an occasional acknowledgement that someone did something you admired, but not this kind of sustained argument. My daughter was treating it like a thesis, hoping the character comparison would hold up for the entire book, so she wouldn’t be proven wrong and have to choose a new approach. Every scene was potential evidence for her claim—or threatened to unravel it.
Along with that, I found both kids quick to censure Toad. It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to identify with him; they thought he was a jerk, and from time to time got so exasperated with him, they wanted to skip scenes or at least a few lines. I did not accommodate them this time. Closer to the end, they found they still liked Toad, despite him being so hard to deal with, and through Toad’s friends’ patience with him, they learned to take him as he was too. But they were not having any of his proclaimed “reformation” at the end. They had made their peace with Toad and accepted his foibles better than his own friends. They were better friends to Toad than Ratty or Badger in the end, and in some way their assimilation to characters in the book was complete. This was a much more involved, much more personally engaged, and much more intellectually challenging experience than reading it had been six years ago. I was delighted by the whole thing, and found new reasons to love an old favorite, as well as the process of reading together. This was the last novel we read together, and we went out with a bang. Our reading now will be sporadic, not religious, but we have had a glorious run.
Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows. 1908. Arthur Rackham, illus. The Collector’s Library Edition. London: CRW Publishing Limited, 2014.