When choosing to write a posthumous sequel to a book that is arguably one of the finest examples of children’s literature to date, you must do so very carefully. Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, first published in 1908, laid the literary groundwork for novels such as Richard Adams’s Watership Down and even Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. So to say the undertaking of a sequel is an ambitious task would be an understatement (see William Horwood’s questionable addition to the Willows series). However, it seems that Jacqueline Kelly is all too familiar with a sequel’s potential to flop, or even worse, tarnish the name of the original and what she has created here moves deftly in familiar waters, riverbanks and streams.
The very first page of Kelly’s Return to the Willows asks us, or rather implores us, to put down this copy immediately and, “ask our librarian for the first book so [we] won’t be entirely clueless”. Luckily for me I am no stranger to Grahame’s original tale as it was both a favorite of mine and of my children’s. From here, we are swept along to the fire-lit burrows of this book’s inhabitants to the very studious and important laboratories of Cambridge as Mole, Toad, Water Rat and Badger take on a whole host of outrageous, often comical but wholly heartfelt adventures. At the start of the tale, Toad has a rather fortuitous head injury that jumbles enough bits in his brain to allow him to be a self-proclaimed genius. He heads off into the world of academia to write dissertations and theses on such distinguished topics of jam and toast. Coincidentally, this also happens to be the exact moment when his nephew, named Humphrey (for “Toad Number Two” doesn’t roll off the tongue so well), comes to visit. All manner of calamities ensue as he is left alone to watch over Toad Hall and the rest of the characters are left to deal with his misadventures.
Kelly’s narration is right on par with that of Grahame’s, even going as far as to invoke Grahame’s classic relative pronoun style of introduction, “In which Toad has…”, or, “In which the pair…” and it surprisingly doesn’t come off as contrived or forced. The rest of the text is perfectly dreamy and somber, and while no accent to the characters is ever specifically implied, one can’t help but give these creatures’ voices an air of sophistication and knowledge.
The art direction for Return is nothing short of stunning. As I read through the pages of the book my daughter and I were constantly getting lost at the adroit hands of master illustrator Clint Young. From the book’s very first images of Water Rat and Mole lazily sitting in a row boat to the warm glow of a candle at the book’s close, you know that you have been treated to some of the industry’s finest. Young is no stranger to the fantasy genre and has aided in the illustrations of many sci-fi projects, most recently taking the lead art direction for the MMORPG, Star Wars the Old Republic.
Why should you read this book?
Ultimately, Return to the Willows is a great success for what it is trying to do. It goes without saying that no recreation will ever live up to the classic, but what Kelly has done here is certainly a great supplement to Grahame’s magnum opus. At the heart of the matter, this is a children’s book and I can certainly assure you that any child with a flair for fantasy and wonder will not turn the last page disappointed.