Category Archives: animal stories

Jacqueline Kelly’s Return to the Willows

I was very dubious.  I’m such a fan of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows with Ratty, Mole, and Toad and their adventures.  The book has always seemed a sort of old boy’s adventure, “old boy” in the sense of those of a particular class and who went to British boarding schools and messed around in the countryside just as those delightful characters do on the riverside.  So when I heard that Jacqueline Kelly was working on a sequel my immediate reaction was why?  Those original characters are perfectly fine as they mess with their boats, so don’t mess with their book, I thought.  Leave ’em alone.

And so I open Kelly’s Return to the Willows, intending to just take a quick look, but I kept reading intrigued and before long I’d read the whole thing. And guess what, reader?  I liked it.

First of all Kelly clearly knows and loves the original and manages, as few have before her, to pay homage while creating something new at the same time. She perfectly captures the nature of the three original heroes: Ratty, Mole, and Toad and even manages to bring out gruff old Badger a bit. And then she successfully adds in two new characters: Toad’s nephew Humphrey and a female baker rat, Matilda. Both work within the well-recreated world of Grahame’s as well as open it up for today’s young readers. I think, in fact, their additions are very sly and smart. Humphrey offers someone for young readers to latch on to as they might not our original three heroes. And Matilda — I admit I was very skeptical and a bit hostile to her at first as the original book feels so much about a bunch of school boys, but I was won over completely. She makes such good sense within that world, is lightly introduced, and then plays an important part near the end. Very nicely done indeed.

Kelly delightfully maintains  that particular world of comfort, pleasant days, and slight adventure. It has been a while since I read the original, but it felt like Kelly was somewhat channelling its structure. There are smaller events to start, then a removal for Toad and another trip back (even involving a revisit to his former place of encarceration), a jolly battle yet again with those weasels and stoats, and finally a satisfyingly hearty ending.

One of the reason it works so well is that Kelly has done a very fine job with the language, somehow lightly maintaining Grahame’s style in a way that will be accessible for readers today. (One way is through her footnotes — I do wonder though if kids will bother to read them. Though I guess they did with Snicket and those are just the sort of readers who will gravitate to this book.) And, I should say, it is funny in the same way the original is. Especially, just as in the original, Toad.  Kelly gets his voice spot on.

Ultimately it is Kelly’s clear love and appreciation of Grahame’s text that makes this shine. Lovely little touches such as the Chief Weasel and Under-Stoat seeing that Toad’s nephew Humphrey gets a lavish picnic lunch even as they are about to kidnap him (and seeing he continues to be well-fed throughout his ordeal). Toad’s stint at Cambridge, his unfortunate taste for vehicles of every sort, and so forth.

Three cheers for Ms. Kelly for doing so well by Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger, and that whole riverbank world.



Filed under animal stories, Classic

Talking Animals: Realistic or Fantasy?

Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library raised an interesting question after I nominated Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright’s The Cheshire Cheese Cat for the Cybil’s middle grade fiction catagory. Asks Charlotte, “… when is a book with sentient animals acting as Persons and effecting the course of human events fantasy?”

I immediately apologized, writing, “My bad. I’ve been thinking about Cheshire Cheese Cat in terms of Newbery and was focusing on age and content not genre. You are absolutely right.” It looks like the Cybils’ folks agreed because they’ve moved my nomination to the fantasy/science fiction section. But then Charlotte responded to my comment, “I think it’s a fuzzy line–The Underneath, for instance, ended up in straight middle grade when it was nominated a few years ago.”

And this got me thinking about the way we parse genre. I’ve been reading aloud The Cheshire Cat Cheese to my class because I thought it would work nicely with our current study of E. B. White’s three children’s books, all featuring talking animals. Now of those three, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan seem clearly fantasy to me with Stuart being the son of a human and Louis with his trumpet and interactions with Sam and others. But Charlotte’s Web? That seems a harder call. After all, the animals never talk to humans (although Fern listens which worries her mother) and seem very, er, animal-like, more like those in The Incredible Journey and Black Beauty (both mentioned by Charlotte), books where animals talk to each other, but otherwise seem very realistic.

The more I think about it I do think The Cheshire Cheese Cat is more fantasy as the animals interact with people, read, and do other very human-like things.  But Charlotte’s Web and other stories where the animals basically act as animals, don’t interact with humans (other than in the ways we expect in real life), and talk to each other?  I wonder.


Filed under animal stories, Charlotte's Web, Fantasy

David Sedaris and the Animals

Rudyard Kipling did it. So did James Thurber.  Now David Sedaris tries his hand at animal fables.  Warning #1:  the bunny is NOT fluffy.  Warning #2:  bottoms are not called bottoms.  Warning #3: more Orwell than Aesop, I’d say.


Filed under animal stories

No Rabbits Were Hurt in the Writing of this Post

In the new series, Peter Rabbit will remain the central character in a cast that will return to what Alli calls the “bolder palette” of Potter’s early drawings. The likes of Tom Kitten will retain their mischievous personalities but the storylines will be new and “appropriate” for the next generation.

“Peter Rabbit’s father being caught by the farmer and being baked into a pie is not going to be our first episode. We’ll be skipping over some chapters,” said Alli.

You can read all about the next big classical children’s series appropriation-I-mean-adaptation here.  Then come back and enjoy this little palate cleanser.

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Filed under animal stories, Classic


Sometimes it works:

“Fans can put away the axes right now, because he has done a fine job.” From the Times review of And Another Thing…Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Part Six of Three by Eoin Colfer.

Sometimes it doesn’t:

“If Winnie the Pooh had been given to a panel to pastiche, David Benedictus’s effort would have been a good contribution. But his sequel adds nothing significant….” From the Times review of Return to the Hundred Acre Wood.

via achokablog

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Filed under animal stories, Classic, Fantasy

Children and Mole Rats

A New York Times article “Children Without Clothes” provoked quite a few letters, including this one:

To the Editor:

Your article was balanced in presenting the varying perspectives that parents and guests have toward raising children.

The 40,000 members and their families who belong to the American Association for Nude Recreation have opted to raise children and grandchildren with an open, matter-of-fact approach to the human body. My wife and I have found this very beneficial as we have raised our own four children. They respect the sensibilities of others but would prefer skinny-dipping at our favorite nudist club to a sandy swimsuit, if given the choice.

As your article notes, in the early years you don’t usually have to teach kids how much fun it is to play without clothes on.

To help explain to them the appropriate time and place to be nude, there is a new resource available: “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed,” a children’s book written and illustrated by Mo Willems. The story provides a springboard for talking with children about social nudity, social customs and making choices.


Kissimmee, Fla.

The writer is the executive director of the American Association for Nude Recreation.

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Filed under animal stories


Those who have visited my home have seen a small gallery of family photos as they come in.  Two are of my father and me at the same age, both with the same curly locks.  I always felt sorry for my dad, looking so girly just because his mother couldn’t bear to cut his hair.  But I have to admit that I was incredibly reluctant to clip my poodle pup.  I loved her long, fluffy hair, but she sure hated my daily brushing and combing.  The older she got and the more she played, the more matted she seemed to get.  And since she could care less what she looks like and sure hates the brushing and combing and pulling, yesterday she was clipped.  Before she looked like some small dog with loads of hair, but now she looks very poodly.


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Filed under animal stories

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Wow. What a book. What a story. What an amazing piece of writing.

Now I admit it took me a while to read this one. While I definitely enjoyed sad animal stories as a child, now, with the occasional exception, I avoid them. And so, when I received a gorgeously packaged ARC of Kathi Appelt‘s The Underneath, I admired it (as it is handsomely illustrated by David Small) , and then read the flap. “An abandoned calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the lonely howl of a chained-up dog….” Nope. Not for me. Until someone told me it reminded her of Russell Hoban‘s The Mouse and his Child which happens to be one of my favorite books. So yesterday, feeling lousy with allergies, a head cold, and a painful hip (can’t run which is misery for me), I pulled out the ARC and read it.

And was immediately and utterly drawn in. I read without pausing till I was done. What a remarkable book. It is an adventure, a story of myth and magic, of sadness, of family — and is very beautifully done indeed. Yes, it is sad. Yes, there are abused animals. Even worse, some dead ones too. But, oh my goodness, is it rich and complex and gorgeous. I would have loved, loved, loved it as a child.

While I can see why someone might compare it to The Mouse and his Child because of the journey aspect of the story, the setting, and the sentiment within (and the illustrations as Small also did an edition of the Hoban book), it seems different to me. Another book this reminded me of was Kate DiCamillo‘s The Tale of Despereaux. The darkness, the multiple plot threads (from different points in time) all coming together slowly, the allegorical qualities, the magical elements are in both. But DiCamillo’s like Hoban’s has humor. Be warned that Appelt’s book is deadly serious. Another one I thought of after reading this book was Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. But it truly is a book of its own, strikingly original.

What is it about? Hard to describe. It takes place in a deep Southern bayou — a place full of sentient trees, of intelligent animals, of shapeshifting creatures, a place of misery and mystery, a place of magic and myth. Within this magical yet hyper real place are two twisting and intersecting groups of beings. There is the bad man, an abused dog, a calico cat and her twin kittens. And then there is the other group. The magical and mythical one. The story threads swirl and twist around each other, a mix of the past and the present.

Just writing this makes me get all hyperbolic. Sorry! Suffice it to say I recommend it and look forward to hearing what others think about it.


Filed under animal stories, Children's Literature