Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Centennial Celebration of a Children's Classic

~Celebrating a Century of a Classic Children's Book~

An Anderson family favorite turns 100 this year:
The book of eternal youth is 100 years old

... It was a golden age for children’s stories – we’ve just had the centenary of Peter Pan and The Railway Children – but The Wind in the Willows surpasses them all. Actually, I’m not sure I care to be reminded that it’s a century old – it has, I’d say, exactly the same effect on the gentle and inquiring reader now as it would have done at any point. As Kenneth Grahame’s contemporary Richard Middleton remarked defiantly at the time, it is “the best book ever written for children and one of the best books ever written for grown-up people”...
(emphasis added)

Cover of the first edition

Kenneth Grahame's classic work of children's literature, The Wind in the Willows, has stood the test of time mostly because it's not just for children. In fact, Grahame's masterpiece, first published on October 8, 1908, has a lyric beauty about it that appeals to the child in all of us, calling us to days out with friends in idyllic settings of riverbank and meadow:
The Wind in the Willows has had a formative effect on the imagination of generations – millions of us carry inside us the Arcady that is the world of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad, all the more because the real English countryside is so much tamer and smaller than it was then. Indeed, it is hard to see many of the people we meet as anything but Rattys, Moles, Toads and Badgers. They’re a template that you can use to categorise acquaintances; at least, the nicer people.
This is a book to be read, and then read again. It should be read to your children, and when they're old enough to read it for themselves, you should set them to it. And, if you raise your children to have a love of books and good literature, they will return to it and read it again as adults.
But perhaps it’s best to leave the essence of The Wind in the Willows to Grahame himself, a man who never quite left off being a little boy and, on balance, preferred animal friends to humans. He wrote: “It is a book of Youth and so perhaps chiefly for Youth, and those who still keep the spirit of youth alive in them: of life, sunshine, running water, woodlands, dusty roads, winter firesides.” A hundred years on, it’s time to climb on a chair and fetch down The Wind in the Willows from the shelves.

~The Anderson Family's Love Affair with The Wind in the Willows~

A copy of The Wind in the Willows, beautifully illustrated by Michael Hague, is the very first book I ever purchased for my firstborn, Jamie. I read it to him as he lay in his crib in the hospital on the very night he was born. He has asked me to read it to him several times since then. Aidan loves the story, as well (and I'm sure Mary Virginia and Gracie will, too, when they are older - though, the book definitely seems to hold a particular charm for boys).

There are a number of different editions of The Wind in the Willows in our home. If you're interested in buying a copy of the book for your family, in addition to the edition illustrated by Michael Hague that I mention above, I encourage you to buy an edition that is illustrated by E.H. Shepard. The images of The Wind in the Willows with which most people have become familiar over the years are the definitive illustrations by Shepard, who is also famous for his classic illustrations of the Winnie-the-Pooh books. A Shepard-illustrated 100th Anniversary paperback edition was released earlier this year (Egmont Books Ltd, 100th Anniversary Edition, February 4, 2008). In addition, if you can get your hands on it, this is a very nice hardbound edition (Methuen Publishing Ltd, 90th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, September 1, 1998) featuring Shepard's illustrations.

Methuen Publishing's 90th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
of The Wind in the Willows, 1998

(As an aside on the subject of Shepard's work on The Wind in the Willows, a permanent exhibition in The Wind in the Willows Gallery at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames, England, brings Shepard's famous illustrations to life via 3-D models that depict the adventures of Ratty, Mole, Badger, Mr. Toad, and their friends: "The Museum has exclusive rights to use the original images by Shepard, who explored the meadows and willow-fringed river around nearby Pangbourne in search of settings for these classic illustrations. The exhibition faithfully follows the original story line, using theatrical lighting and sound techniques to transport visitors on a journey through the whimsical world of The Wind in the Willows." During our visit to England in September 2005, Sarah and I took Jamie and Aidan to the Museum to see this exhibit, and they were absolutely delighted, going through the gallery over and over and over again. Definitely worth a side trip if you're ever across the Pond.)

In addition to owning several copies of the book, the Anderson family also owns the BBC Radio Collection 3-CD audiobook set, which Jamie and Aidan listen to every night as they lie in their beds to go to sleep. We also own a couple of very fine animated movie adaptations on DVD (and I am so NOT including among them the Disney bastardization known as "The Adventures of Mr. Toad", which we do own, by the way): my favorite of the movie adaptations is the 1996 version with the voice talents of Michael Gambon (Badger), Michael Palin (Ratty), Alan Bennett (Mole), and The Young Ones' Rik Mayall (aptly cast as Toad); the other excellent film version is the 1983 adaptation from A&E Home Video. If you are a fan of the book, these adaptations should not disappoint, and I encourage you to purchase them. The Anderson children are also fond of playing their Wind in the Willows board game.

The Wind in the Willows Board Game
based on the 1996 animated movie

~The Wind in the Willows in the Popular Imagination~

The Wind in the Willows continues to enchant new generations of readers. For instance, in commemoration of the book's 100th anniverary, Scholastic Publishing has produced a list of activities to do with children in association with encouraging them to read The Wind in the Willows.

The Wind in the Willows has also inspired popular culture over the years. One example of where the lyric quality of the book has inspired modern-day lyricists is the song by my favorite singer Van Morrison, "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" (not to be confused with Pink Floyd's first album by the same name):
Van Morrison

( Play Audio Sample )

The coolness of the riverbank, and the whispering of the reeds
Daybreak is not so very far away

Enchanted and spellbound, in the silence they lingered
And rowed the boat as the light grew steadily strong
And the birds were silent, as they listened for the heavenly music
And the river played the song

The wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn
The wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn

The song dream happened and the cloven hoofed piper
Played in that holy ground where they felt the awe and wonder
And they all were unafraid of the great God pan

And the wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn
The wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn

When the vision vanished they heard a choir of birds singing
In the heavenly silence between the trance and the reeds
And they stood upon the lawn and listened to the silence

Of the wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn
The wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn
The wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn

It's the wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn
The wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn
The wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn
And Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne wrote my favorite bit of commentary on this timeless classic, which I inscribed inside the edition I bought for Jamie when he was born:
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. We can't criticize it, because it is criticizing us. But I must give you one word of warning. When you sit down to it, don't be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, or on the art of Kenneth Grahame. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself. You may be worthy: I don't know, But it is you who are on trial.
There's not much more that can be said beyond that. [UPDATE: For some reason, that quote puts me in mind of Jeffrey Smith at The Roving Medievalist. It reads like something he would write. And I know he's as big a fan of The Wind in the Willows as I am.] If you've never read The Wind in the Willows, take the opportunity of this 100th anniversary year to acquaint yourself with Kenneth Grahame's classic tale of Mole, Ratty, Badger, and the irrepressible Mr. Toad. If you have read the book before, do yourself a favor and read it again. And again. And again.

The Wind in the Willows - Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia

The Wind in the Willows - Wikipedia

The Wind in the Willows Study Guide

The Wind In The Willows: A Bibliography of Illustrated Editions, arranged alphabetically by Illustrator

The Wind in the Willows Turns 100 - Britannica Blog

The Wind in the Willows - Parent's Choice, Reviewing Children's Media

"Variable Winds in the Willows" - Parent's Choice, Reviewing Children's Media

"Abridged too far" -

Simply Messing About In Boats - Shirts, Tote Bags, Gifts

Kenneth Grahame - Biography and Works

Further Reading:
My Dearest Mouse "The Wind in the Willows" letters, 1988

The Golden Age by Kenneth Grahame and Ernest H. Shepard (Illustrator)

Dream Days by Kenneth Grahame and Ernest H. Shepard (Illustrator)

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame and Ernest H. Shepard (Illustrator)

A Breeze in the Willows: A Celebration of the Wit and Wisdom of the Wind in the Willows by Allen Johnson and Roger Michell

The Willows in Winter by William Horwood

Toad Triumphant by William Horwood

The Willows at Christmas (Tales of the Willows) by William Horwood

The Willows and Beyond by William Horwood

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