Jacqueline Kelly has had a mole, a badger, a rat and a toad in her head for 50 years. But not to worry—it wasn’t due to anything frightening or medically improbable. Rather, the four are the charming protagonists of The Wind in the Willows, one of Kelly’s lifelong favorite books.
Kelly, a 2010 Newbery Honoree for her first book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, told BookPage in an interview from her Austin, Texas, home that she was eight years old when she first turned the pages of Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale (which was first published in England in 1908). “I was in bed with the flu, and [the book] immediately transported me to the riverbank,” she says. “I loved everything about it, and reread it over the years. The characters never went away.”
And now, she’s set them free in Return to the Willows, a charming sequel that’s faithful to the original book while adding creative touches of her own.
Some might suggest that Kelly’s got a lot of moxie for writing a sequel to a beloved classic—and adding new characters, to boot—but, she says, “It didn’t occur to me that people would think that. I’m just being a worshipful fan of the original, my favorite book when I was a child.” She is aware there are other sequels out there, and says, “When I started writing, I didn’t know about them, and was rather dismayed when I learned they existed. I made the decision I wasn’t going to read them. . . . I still haven’t.”
When she began to write her sequel, Kelly says it was because she “felt compelled to do it. The characters were being insistent!” Judging from the hilarious and heartwarming result, Kelly (and those characters) made the right decision. Return to the Willows is an engaging, imagination-stimulating read for longtime fans and first-time visitors to the River, Wild Wood and Toad Hall.
"I'm just being a worshipful fan of the original, my favorite book when I was a child."
The author’s adoration shines through in the book’s tone and rhythm; reading Grahame’s book, then Kelly’s, does feel like a continuation, rather than a re-interpretation. She attributes that to the sounds and words of her youth: “My childhood was in Canada, and kids there read more British-based literature than kids in the States do, so I heard that sort of language and tone at an early age. Plus, my family is from New Zealand. . . . It’s easy for me to hear an English accent in my head while I’m writing.”
For American readers who might be puzzled by phrases like “bib and tucker” or words like “tittle” (that’s “best clothing” and “little bit,” respectively), Kelly included footnotes. “I wrestled with it,” she recalls. “Do I keep the British terms? If I convert to American terms, wouldn’t the text look very strange? So I thought I could deal with it by using footnotes, and try to make them entertaining.”
And of course, as a devotee of the book (and author—she’s a member of the Kenneth Grahame Society), she carefully considered things like new technology and those new characters. “I did contemplate—for about two seconds!—giving them computers and cell phones. But I just couldn’t see it. I’m too old-fashioned to see these characters texting each other,” she says.
Kelly decided that new additions would serve the story well, so readers will meet Matilda, a lovely and clever rat, and young Humphrey, the intelligent (and adorable) nephew of Toad. “I thought Matilda needed to be added for contemporary girl readers,” Kelly says, “and Humphrey would be a good foil for Toad, who’s not so smart.”
Speaking of the irresponsible yet irresistible Toad, readers needn’t fret: He’s just as wacky and daring here as he was in Grahame’s original. In Kelly’s story, his new mode of delightful destruction is a hot-air balloon (which is, of course, not unrelated to his own propensity for gassing on). He also sustains a head injury that transforms him into a genius with a seat at Trinity College in Cambridge, where his smarts (and Kelly’s sly humor) know seemingly no bounds. He does the Sunday Times crossword in pen; publishes a scientific paper called “Jam Side Down: A Discourse on the Physics of Falling Toast”; and casually memorizes the score to Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore . . . which comes in handy when he serves as a virtuoso last-minute replacement for the female lead.
There are river excursions, giant explosions, swimming lessons and an all-out animal-on-animal war, too; adventures, friendships, dramatic plots and all sorts of excitement abound (not to mention references ranging from Austen to Shakespeare to a certain Disneyland ride). The striking realism of certain events was aided by consultations with Kelly’s husband, who attended Cambridge and has connections there—and with the explosives experts who work in the federal building in Austin where Kelly practices medicine part-time.
That’s right: Kelly went to medical school, then law school (she no longer practices), and then began to write when she was in her mid-40s. “I always wanted to be a writer, from the very beginning, and I took these long divagations along the way,” she says. “I’m very grateful now . . . this is how I want to spend my time.”
Thanks to Kelly, readers certainly will enjoy spending their time catching up on old friends and meeting new ones along the riverbank. Clint Young’s illustrations add much to the experience; his artwork is masterfully done, with detail, depth and plenty of emotion. Return to the Willows will inspire us to respect nature, be kind to our friends, be open to change, embrace hilarity . . . and perhaps take another, closer look at any furry or amphibious creatures we encounter.