Claire and I just finished another interesting and inspiring online Hillsdale College course, this one entitled “Classic Children’s Literature.” And that has prompted me to drop into Vital Signs Blog another quick post on the subject. You see, I have already posted a column dealing with children’s literature earlier this week. That short piece (“What’s Missing from the Guardian’s List of Books For Boys? Plenty!”) was prompted by a request from a friend here in our neighborhood who needed ideas on books for his son. 

But today, sparked by Dr. Daniel Coupland’s closing Hillsdale lecture on Kenneth Grahame’s delightful The Wind In the Willows, I’m moving again into the realm of children’s fiction with a short column which I sincerely hope will be an encouragement for you yourself to take a trip with Ratty, Badger, Mole, and Mr. Toad very soon. (And, by all means, don’t wait until you have a kid around! The book is a gem for perceptive adult souls too.)

“A Test of Character” (On Reading The Wind In the Willows)

The intriguing, heartwarming, and much beloved book The Wind in the Willows began as tales told by Scottish-born banker Kenneth Grahame to his only child, Alastair whose premature birth created such health issues as being blind in one eye. Alastaire loved his father’s stories but they  ended up going much farther afield, even winning the praises of such notables as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, A.A. Milne, and President Teddy Roosevelt. Indeed, Roosevelt is not only credited with persuading Scribners to publish the book in the first place, the President wrote a letter to Grahame from the White House enthusiastically thanking him for his effort and told him that he considered the characters in the book to have now become his “dear friends.” 

You say you haven’t read it lately? Maybe even since the days of childhood? Well, I would urge you to discover afresh the joys, the beauty, and the profound life lessons of The Wind in the Willows. And to further whet your appetite, let me pass along a few remarkable responses to Graham’s classic, including famed Vanity Fare editor Richard Middleton who said of The Wind In the Willows, “It is the best book ever written for children and one of the best written for adults”.

And check out the opinions of A.A. Milne, the celebrated author who gave us the Winnie the Pooh stories. Milne once said of The Wind in the Willows: “I shall not describe the book, for no description would help it.  But I shall just say this; that it is what I call a Household Book.  By a Household Book I mean a book which everybody in the household loves and quotes continually ever afterwards; a book which is read aloud to every new guest, and is regarded as the touchstone of his worth.  But it is a book which makes you feel that, though everybody in the house loves it, it is only you who really appreciate it in its true value, and that the others are scarcely worthy of it.  It is obvious, you persuade yourself, that the author was thinking of you when he wrote it.  ‘I hope this will please Jones,’ were his final words, as he laid down his pen.”

Here’s yet another sparkling observation from Milne: “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, he 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.”

C.S. Lewis also chimed in on The Wind in the Willows. “It might be expected that such a book would unfit us for the harshness of reality and send us back to our daily lives unsettled and discontented. I do not find that it does so. The happiness which it presents to us is, in fact, full of the simplest and most attainable things — food, sleep, exercise, friendship, the face of nature, even (in a sense) religion. That ‘simple but sustaining meal’ of ‘bacon and broad beans and a macaroni pudding’ which Rat gave to his friends has, I doubt not, helped down many a real nursery dinner. And in the same way the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual.” 

Elsewhere Lewis wrote, “I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.” 

And finally, here’s one more. G.K. Chesterton scholar James Woodruff once named The Wind in the Willows as the most Chestertonian thing ever written…by anyone other than Chesterton, that is. He claimed this was because it is “a celebration of the primal things Chesterton loved — Home and Friendship and Adventure — all suffused with a sense of wonder and lived out by characters who write poetry and go forth to battle and both eat and drink with right good will.”

So how can I add anything else to these superb testimonies? Suffice it to say, that I too did not come to The Wind In the Willows until my adulthood. But, bless the Lord, that I finally did discover the Riverbank, the Wild Wood, Toad Hall, and the other enduring locales found in Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful world — complete with the matchless illustrations provided by Ernest H. Shepard. My, my; this book has deepened my wonder and appreciation of so many grand things: God’s rich and intriguing Creation, home, faithfulness, friendship, kindness, the responsibility to defend the young and the innocent, hospitality, the noble longing for adventure that lies in each human heart, and the need to courageously fight for the right. 

The Wind In the Willows — go and enjoy!

But be doers of the word,
and not hearers only.