When a children’s book was praised by none other than sitting US President Theodore Roosevelt, that tells you two things: 1. The book is old. 2. The book is good enough for a President to spend his time reading it, so its got a good chance of being pretty good.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame follows anthropomorphic animals in their various adventures through the world. While there are many picture books about animals, long middle-grade books about them are significantly more rare. This book proves its quality from a reading today.
At the beginning of the book we meet the Mole, who is coming out of his hole as spring is beginning. He happens to run into a Rat and follows him to the river-bank, where there is a vibrant community of animals. The Mole has never seen it before, but is greatly impressed and thus takes up lodging by the river.
We soon meet the Toad, a rich fellow who is constantly getting himself into scraps by his addiction to motor-cars when he is a terrible and careless driver. We also meet the Badger, who Mr. Mole discovers after venturing in a dangerous manner into the Wild Wood.
The four are close friends and we follow their escapades as the Rat has a yearning to explore the seas and Mr. Toad gets himself thrown in jail for stealing another person’s motor-car. There is even a full-scale battle as the four face an army of hundreds for control of the Toad’s ancestral home. They all seek to help each other through trouble, but nonetheless get in a normal amount of it for adventuresome animals.
The humanlike attitudes of the animals and their going-ons are quite hilarious, and the characters are very identifiable. The Rat’s desire to go and explore the world is awesome, as is Mr. Mole’s folly into the woods and his affection for his old but now deserted house. Mr. Toad is quite a humorous character, escaping from prison and all and being extremely puffed-up. And Badger is just a sensible, wise fellow.
At first the setting seems to suggest that this animal world may be a secret one that we are not privy to, but further displays in the book such as paintings in the animals’ houses and policemen arresting Mr. Toad show that it could never happen in real life. The reader will nevertheless be drawn to the story and wonder if animals may really be like this.
The language in the book is quite up-to-date, although it contains a few words that current readers may find confusing. There is only one remark of preachiness in the entire book, while the entirety of it is simply in fun. It is easy to get into the story and feel right there in the action.
There is one scene that is intriguing and good where the characters have a sort of spiritual experience and witness a miracle.It seemed pretty out of place and was such a surprising shift of gears that I had to go back and re-read it at first to ensure the author really had just hopped from the fun lives of animals into the divine. At first I thought the author had made a mistake by not leading up to it, but now I think he likely did wrote it that way on purpose to really emphasize the event (paradoxically, by not emphasizing it at all). If that was his goal, he succeeded.
Kids tend to grow up now much faster than they did in 1903 when the book was written, and since it is a fairly good-sized book with over 58,000 words, it is best suited for upper middle-grade children. I wonder a little if kids at this age will appreciate a playful, funny book about animals (filled with action as it is) such as this one. No doubt many will get engrossed in the story and after that the chances of anyone putting it down are slim. It is different from many kids books these days in that it is pervaded by a sense of calm and relaxation, which is sorely missing from most middle grade books and altogether absent from those of the young-adult variety.
As evinced by Roosevelt’s remark, the appeal of this book is to older readers as well as younger, and I think a good many adults will take pleasure from this book. My biggest complaint is that there are not more adventures of these four written by the author. I will have to take a look at his other works, since this one cannot be anything but highly recommended.