Spotlight: More Kid Stuff
From the Wild Wood to Deadmen's Valley
Books for Web-Footed Children
By Farwell Forrest
September 9, 2003
Some kids I was one take to paddling
ducks take to water. Not that there was much water
to take to in the city where I grew up. True, the Hudson River
lapped greasily at the sodden pilings of the decaying port, but the waterfront was
never a welcoming place. It wasn't just the bloated bodies of unlucky dogs
swirling lazily in the tidal eddies, joined now and again by the last mortal
remains of despondent stenographers and derelict winos. It wasn't even the
grim-jawed but plodding railway cops, more accustomed to beating up drunken tramps
than chasing light-footed street urchins over chain-link fences and under freight
cars. No, the thing that froze my blood was the river itself. One look at the
quarter-mile-wide expanse of muscular green water was enough to make even the
boldest kid retreat to the familiar world of splintered stoops, crumbling
sidewalks, and garbage-strewn back-alleys.
That's exactly what I did, too. But though I turned my back on the river, I
still felt the tug of the rushing water. So I lived for summer, when afternoon
thundershowers sent torrents of rain sluicing down the city's streets, choking
storm drains with debris and flooding low-lying intersections. Then I launched my
home-built canoe living next to the city dump meant I was never short of
construction materials on brief but exciting voyages of exploration through
once familiar streetscapes, miraculously transformed by floodwater (and
imagination) into Venetian canals and Canadian mountain rivers.
All too often, however, the deluge would stop just as quickly as it had begun,
stranding me and my awkward craft far from the tenement that I called home. And
then, much sooner than seemed possible, summer itself would come to an end,
beaching me high and dry in some airless cell of a schoolroom, doomed to watch the
faded leaves of the playground's only surviving elm tree fall to the ground one by
one, while I waited impatiently for the first snow of winter to transform the
urban landscape once again.
Times change. The city waterfront is a much more inviting place today than when
I was dodging beefy Pinkerton guards, and fewer kids have to wait until a thunderstorm
floods their street in order to go paddling. But summer still has much too short a
run. Once the back-to-school sales have come and gone, and fall weekends have
faded into memory, what's a web-footed kid to do?
Read. That's one answer, anyway. In the last Spotlight, I looked at primers for
paddling parents. This time out, I'm going to see what's available for kids.
Not primers, though. Any kid who wants to learn to paddle should have the guidance
of a more experienced paddler: a parent, perhaps, or a professional instructor, or
maybe even another kid, older and more expert than he is himself.
What, then, am I going to write about? Stories. Tales that nourish the
imagination, awaken the memory, and whet the appetite. Not just any
stories, though. Libraries are full of books for kids, but few of them have stood
the test of time as well as The Wind in the Willows. You won't find
it on any best-seller list, but Kenneth Grahame's 1908 classic is still in print
after almost a century, and that says a lot. If you've read it, you'll know the
secret of its enduring appeal. If not, it's time you learned, even if your
childhood is only a distant memory. Wind in the Willows is a book that can
be read with equal pleasure by both adults and kids.
And what is Wind in the Willows about? It's a fanciful tale of
exploration and adventure, set in an idealized English countryside of river and
woodland, peopled by a thoroughly engaging cast of animal characters. Don't be put
off by this. Wind in the Willows isn't The House on Pooh Corner.
Mole, Ratty, Badger, and Toad have nothing in common with the saccharine simulacra
that populate most animal tales. No, indeed! Grahame's animals are fully realized
individuals: alternately charming and irascible, hard-working and irresponsible,
steadfast and flighty. They are, in short, disconcertingly like you and me.
But where's the connection to paddling? Everywhere. Though the story travels
far afield as it unfolds, taking the reader from the Wild Wood to Toad Hall to
Town and then back again, it never strays far from a river. ("The River,"
Ratty corrects Mole, with some asperity, reminding him that "What it hasn't got is
not worth having, and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing." Would any
web-footed kid or adult disagree? I doubt it.)
A word of warning: Wind in the Willows was written for children, but
that doesn't mean it's an easy read. It's a marvelous read-aloud story, however,
whatever the age of your audience. Just be prepared to explain what "Dulce Domum"
means, and what the "Return of Ulysses" has to do with the storming of Toad Hall.
And while you're at it, try to get hold of one of the many later editions (Charles
Scribner's Sons' 1959 Golden Anniversary Edition, for example) that were
illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. His painstakingly detailed line drawings are the
definitive portraits of life along The River.
The world has changed since the reign of Queen Victoria's wayward son, of
course. The comfortable certainties of Edwardian England were swallowed up without
a trace in the charnel houses of Paschendaele and the Somme, and Kenneth Grahame's
green and pleasant land now lives on only in the pages of fiction. But the lure of
the water is as strong today as it was in 1908. The Adirondack Kids
(Adirondack Kids Press, Camden, New York; 2001) makes this perfectly clear. To be
sure, Adirondack Kids is less substantial fare than Wind in the
Willows, but perhaps that's not such a bad thing. Written by a father and son
team, Justin and Gary VanRiper's slender tale is a coming-of-age story, though the
authors mercifully steer clear of the tedious introspection that mars so many
examples of this popular genre. Instead, they tell a plain tale simply and well,
avoiding both the pleasures and the pitfalls of literary embellishment.
Adirondack Kids is a good book to give any newly-independent reader with a
taste for the outdoor life.
Is it perfect? No. While some of Glenn Guy's illustrations are superb I'm
thinking particularly of a wonderfully lugubrious black bear, an iconographic
librarian, and a suitably haunting portrait of a loon
others are stilted and lifeless. Critical adults might find fault with several of
the plot devices, too. No matter. This isn't a book for adults, and despite
the illustrator's occasional lapses, his pencil sketches add far more to the story
than they take away. The Adirondack Kids evokes the joy of messing about in
boats and captures the sweet freedom of childhood summer vacations. That's more
Now, how about something for older kids for the boy hovering on the cusp
of adolescence, say, and dreaming of adventure in far-away places? A book whose
pages are peopled with Indians, for instance, and Mounties, too, and a story that
involves both gold prospecting and fur trapping. No matter that today's "Indians"
are more likely to be shareholders in prosperous Native corporations, or the
owners of profitable casinos, than itinerant trappers. No matter that solitary
prospecting is dirty, difficult work with scant hope of return. No matter even
that trapping is a tedious, grubby business whose success or failure hangs on the
whims of fashion designers in distant urban capitals. These discordant notes are
pluses, not minuses. What's needed is Romance, not sordid Reality. We want
something for the 14-year-old boy in everyman. We want what the Brits used to call
"real Boy's Own Paper stuff."
And we won't have to look far to find it. There's no better example than
Dangerous River, R.M. Patterson's much-reprinted account of his
trips into the Nahanni
country in the late 1920s. Most adult paddlers have seen a copy at one time or
another, and almost everyone who's read it will agree that it's one helluva tale.
It's a true story, into the bargain, though the case-hardened skeptic may find a
few things hard to swallow. (Did Patterson "RMP" to most fans really
put two rounds into a mountain sheep at "nearly five hundred yards," using a
Mannlicher carbine with a badly-fitted telescopic sight? Mighty fine shooting,
that.) In any case, few readers will care if RMP bent the truth from time to time
for the sake of a good yarn. It's a safe bet that Dangerous River is, in
Huck Finn's words, "mostly a true book, with some stretchers." It's certainly a
marvelously entertaining read. No boy could ask for more.
Can girls play the game, too? Of course they can. They'll soon discover that
RMP's Dangerous River was an exclusively male preserve, however. Is this
important? Probably not. A good story is a good story, and times have
That's it: three great books for web-footed kids. And maybe you, too, will soon
be looking for something to lighten the dull, dark months between summer holidays.
If so, you could do far worse than to pick up a copy of The Wind in the
Willows or Dangerous River whatever your age. It's a long way
from the Wild Wood to Deadmen's Valley, but with the help of Grahame and RMP you
can visit both places and still be home in time for supper. Try that in your
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights