Considering how much I loved books anthropomorphizing animals as a kid, it’s a little shocking that I never read Kenneth Leighton’s The Wind in the Willows (1908). I read and re-read my Redwall books so often that several of them actually wore out, and I had to buy new copies. I read (and re-read) Watership Down well before I was old enough to actually understand its commentary on community, politics, and government. But I didn’t read The Adventures of Frog and Toad because I’d never heard of it (how, I ask you, how?!) – though I did get to that one recently, and you can read my thoughts on it – and I didn’t read The Wind in the Willows because, if I remember correctly, my sister had a copy and growing up, it was never okay for us to like something if the other one did. However, my husband loves The Wind in the Willows and has a really beautiful, illustrated copy that he let me put on my to-read shelf for as long as it took for me to get around to it.
It is usually lighthearted, fun, entertaining, and probably a big hit with children who are avid readers. But it is also surprisingly sophisticated. Its language often waxes complex, with some really subtle but remarkably funny moments that I’d never have understood as a child. A few of the slower chapters must simply drag on to a young reader, but these moments turned out to be my favorites, those that will stick with me long after I’ve shelved the book.
The novel centers mainly around the newfound friendship between the Mole and the Water Rat, and their adventures with their friends the Toad, the Badger, and the Otter. None of these characters are named, and it is never clear whether these are animal-sized or human-sized creatures – the book is strangely noncommittal on that point. Though each seems to represent their entire species, they have distinct personalities. Getting to know them was a delight, except for Toad, who is selfish, ostentatious, and generally annoying. I was disappointed that the last few chapters of the book focused on him, because I’d wanted a more contemplative end to the story. The best moments in this book are the slower-moving ones. These chapters describe the changing of the seasons, the comfort of home, the call to wanderlust and travel, and an encounter with deity (the Christian God?). This focus on nature and relationships is a very romantic sentiment, one that suggested that the book, though 20th-century in its publication, was significantly earlier in conception.
If you haven’t read The Wind in the Willows, you simply must do so! It is a delightful set of stories, and is among the most sophisticated in its language among all of the children’s literature I’ve read since beginning this project of reading the classics. And hopefully, you can find a copy with illustrations – they add to its charm.