For over one hundred years Kenneth Grahame’s masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows, has held a special place in the hearts of millions of readers both young and old. For me, this cherished work of friendship set in a rapidly disappearing natural world has always stood alone – complete and perfect.
So when I learned that Jacqueline Kelly had written a sequel titled Return to the Willows, I was somewhat leery. I had just read her first book The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (2010 Newberry Honor Book) and was very impressed, so I reluctantly gave it a try. The slightly oversized format, hefty feel, and gorgeous jacket illustrations by Clint Young were a good start, and after reading the first paragraph, whatever doubts I may have had were melting away, and I settled in for a good long read. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to put it down.
Any author who writes a sequel to a well-loved work by another author has surely taken on a formidable task. He or she must pay homage to the original, satisfy the current fans, connect with a new audience, and create something new that will stand alone. In my opinion Ms. Kelly succeeds on all fronts.
Mole, Rat, Toad, Badger and their pastoral environs are essentially unchanged. Mercifully, no attempt to update the story was made by including modern-day references, devices or technologies. In fact, nothing that couldn’t have existed in the time of the original (1908) has been included in the main text of the sequel.
What is new that I think young readers will enjoy is the introduction of two younger characters – Humphrey, Toad’s studious nephew, and Sammy, the “small bedraggled weasel” who made a brief appearance at the end of the original. Kelly also created a love-interest for Rat – Matilda, a strong and resourceful character in her own right. These new additions are well developed, play important roles, and fit in seamlessly with the original four friends.
Jacqueline Kelly’s sequel is at once charming, thoughtful, and funny – very funny. Toad’s antics, of course, are the primary source of this hilarity, but another device (usually associated with adult non-fiction) that contributes to the humor is the use of footnotes. This allows the author to lighten the tone somewhat and communicate directly with the reader, offering “translations from the English language into American”, but also keen observations, little-known facts, and insights that will have great appeal to today’s middle grade readers.
 Yes, footnotes!