The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame
Recommended Age: 12+
This achingly beautiful book began as a series of stories the author wrote to his small son, by way of continuing their nightly bedtime stories when the son's nurse took him away for a seaside holiday. As with many of my favorite stories, a father-child love story whispers between the lines--in this case, a tragic love story of a father who was destined to be heartbroken by his son's suicide.
I don't dare say much about this story, except to hint that it has to do with a Mole and a Water Rat, a Badger and a Toad, who dress up in fine clothes, mess around in boats, drive automobiles, and have various adventures. Few readers can resist the battle for Toad Hall against a gang of weasels and similar vermin. Toad is, to be sure, a fascinating character, and he probably represents the headlong rush into modernity that alarmed Grahame into writing this book in 1908. It is, in essence, a warmly nostalgic look at an age, and a countryside, that even then had begun to transform beyond recognition. Or maybe it's a portrait of the dream of endless childhood.
One way or the other, I am probably going against everyone else's opinion when I say that the best chapter doesn't have anything to do with Mr. Toad. It's the chapter entitled "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," and I get choked up even thinking about it. Don't make me say any more, I'll embarrass myself. It's so sweet and sad that you can't help being moved, even if the pantheistic imagery grates on your religious convictions (as it does on mine).
Maybe the kind of child that would enjoy this book exists mostly inside grown-ups. To such children I especially recommend the real, original, pre-Hollywood Wind in the Willows.
EDIT: I know of, but have not read, another book by this author, titled The Reluctant Dragon. However, I have heard, and highly recommend, John Rutter's musical setting of this story.