The Wedding of Mrs. Fox — that didn’t Actually Happen

Mr. Fox lived with his wife in the old city. He insisted Mrs. Fox do all that was required of a good wife, but he was a lousy husband. He spent his time drinking, gambling, and trolling the streets of the city with his friend Mr. Wolf. The two thought of one another as friends, but they generally didn’t trust one another for a second.
One day, Mr. Fox decided to play a trick on his wife. He suspected her of cheating, and he was determined to catch her in the act. Coming home from a night of carousing with Mr. Wolf, Mr. Fox lay as though dead on the couch in the front room. And he waited.
Mrs. Fox came down at her usual time to make the coffee and set the bread to rise for the second time. She spotted her husband lying as though dead on the couch—tongue lulling and eyes half closed. What is he up to, she thought.
She stepped up to the couch and looked down. “Oh mercy,” she cried. “My poor husband is dead! What will become of me?”
She cried and wailed and wailed and cried until the ruckus brought Mrs. Mole scurrying from next door. “What is it, Mrs. Fox,” asked the alarmed neighbour.
“Oh mercy,” cried Mrs. Fox. “My husband is dead! And he has left me without a penny in the world. I suppose now all I can do is throw myself on the mercy of Mr. Toad.”
Ha! thought Mr. Fox to himself. She is seeing that villainous old Mr. Toad, it seems. Mr. Fox occasionally worked for Mr. Toad, one of the crime bosses in the old city. He didn’t have the backbone to take revenge upon Mr. Toad, but he could certainly teach his wife a lesson.
“All we can do is get the body ready for burial,” said Mrs. Fox. “You can help me, Mrs. Mole.” And she fetched a sheet with which to cover the supine Mr. Fox.
Burial, thought Mr. Fox. We’ll see about that.
Word spread quickly in the old city, and soon a line was forming outside Mrs. Fox’s front door. They weren’t creditors—those would come later. They were suitors. A number of seedy characters knew that Mr. Fox had a tidy bit hidden away, and they thought if they could marry his widow, they might get their hands on his gold.
“Someone here to see you Mrs. Fox,” called Mrs. Mole up the stairs.
“Invite them into the kitchen,” called back Mrs. Fox. “I’ll be down directly.”
Soon the kitchen was full of suitors, and Mrs. Mole poured out coffee and handed round fresh biscuits. One by one, the suitors crept into the living room to have a peak at the deceased Mr. Fox. He looked very dead. But the crafty fox wasn’t dead, of course; he was just asleep. His night of carousing had left him more tired than he thought.
Mrs. Mole went up the stairs to check on her friend, and she found the clever Mrs. Fox packed and ready to leave. Tucked into her purse and about her person was Mr. Fox’s gold, which he thought he had kept well hidden.
“I’m off to a new life in the new city,” Mrs. Fox said to her friend and neighbour. “Take this gold piece and buy yourself and your children something nice.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Fox. And bless you.” Then Mrs. Mole hurried out of the front door, telling the impatient suitors to wait just another five minutes for Mrs. Fox.
They waited, and they waited. But Mrs. Fox was long gone. She was in a cab on her way to a new life in the new city.
When Mr. Fox suddenly gave a grunting snore, the suitors came piling into the living room and tore away the sheet.
“Why the scoundrel is alive!” they cried. And they gave Mr. Fox the beating of his life—mostly out of disappointment. It was many days before Mr. Fox was able to be up and about. He had lost his wife, his gold, and whatever pride he had left, and he spent his days and nights complaining about his misfortunes to anyone who would listen. Most didn’t.
As for Mrs. Fox, she had enough to set herself up in the new city. Eventually, she opened an orphanage that made its mission the rescue of parentless children from the old city. Mrs. Fox taught her children how to read and write and how to behave, and she sent them out into the wide world to do some good. “For the world,” she was often heard to say, “doesn’t need any more like my old reprobate of a husband.”

Animals, Animals, Animals

Earlier this week, in response to “Adult Nostalgia and Children’s Classics,” Laura Frey, from Reading in Bed, commented on remembering some childhood favourites of her own. She referred to Redwall, which is the first in a series of twenty-two books by Brian Jacques. I haven’t read the whole series, but it’s one that loses you in a world of animals living in a medieval-style abbey.
Laura’s comment got me thinking more about animal stories and longer books featuring animal characters. Picture books about animals are most likely the first books that children will encounter. From the Little Bear books to the Franklin series to Peter Rabbit, such books are formative for a child’s reading life. My own kids loved all of these books. One of the earliest picture books I remember about an animal—in this case a bird—was P. D. Eastman’s Are You my Mother? These books have the virtue of finely conceived anthropomorphized animal characters that speak straight to the heart of any child.
Animals appear in countless longer books for kids as well, sometimes more anthropomorphized and sometimes less, and often showing the line between good and evil. Cluny the Scourge, a nasty bilge rat from Redwall, is one of the more serious animal villains from such books. Jacques series is one of those in which it’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad—for one thing, the good guys are vegetarians.
Another of my favourite animal books is Watership Down by Richard Adams. You will learn more than you ever wanted to know about rabbits in reading this book. A group of rabbits, led by Hazel, leave their home in the Sandleford Warren to find a new home in the nearby downs. Remember, these are rabbits making their way across a couple of miles of tame English countryside. But for these rabbits, the world is full of danger and unexpected turns. It’s a far cry from the bunnies of the Beatrix Potter books, and General Woundwort is another great animal villain—nastier than Cluny himself.
Talking animals appear in all sorts of texts. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are one of the kindest old married couples you’ll meet. Funny they don’t have any kids of their own. As part of his education, the Wart, from The Sword in the Stone, is turned into every animal imaginable. Those texts that focus more exclusively on animal characters also incorporate an animal morality and code of behaviour. In Narnia, for example, talking beasts have a higher place in the order of things than dumb beasts. In Watership down, the rabbits recognize their own compassion and fellowship, or animality, in the face of the cruelty of humans.
The treatment or mistreatment of animals is something else to think about with many of these books. The Harry Potter series, as a case in point, includes many animals, but they are often the subject of transfiguration classes, and the Ministry of Magic has a department expressly for dealing with magical animals, The Department for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures, which we first meet in The Prisoner of Azkaban during the trial of Buckbeak the hippogriff. Granted, Harry, Ron, and Hermione take Care of Magical Creatures, and Hagrid is fanatical in his love and respect for animals, but rowling’s world remains somewhat ambivalent when it comes to the treatment of magical and non-magical creatures.
I’ve mostly been commenting here about animal fantasies, or fantasies involving animals, but don’t forget about all of the books that feature realistic animals, or show kids interacting with real critters. Books about boys and dogs or girls and horses are genres unto themselves. My own daughter loved The Pony Pals, and as a young teen, I loved reading realistic stories involving animals, such as Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens.
Books about animals, whatever the kind, become a way of helping you to connect with the natural world, even if you live in the city. I’m fortunate to live in a neighbourhood where I’m able  to get my fill of nature: from the robins, crows, and merlin’s that make their home here, to the rabbits that eat my flowers and the crazy squirrels that live in the giant spruce in my backyard.
Find yourself some animal books, and remember all those creatures with whom we share the planet. I’m always interested in hearing about what other people are reading, so I welcome your comments. And don’t forget to check out Laura Frey’s blog, She’s funny, and a sharp reader.

Adult Nostalgia and Children’s Classics

I first discovered fanfiction at a Harry Potter Con a few years ago in San Francisco—appropriately enough. It reminded me at the time that I tend to live my life under a large literary rock. The Internet is full of fanfiction sites. If you are unaware of fanfic, then tread carefully, especially if you are checking out fanfic sites of your favourite series. I only ever read fanfic occasionally, but as someone who encourages reading, writing, and writing about reading, I can hardly criticize such endeavours. Popular culture reproduces and responds to books and films in many ways, but the cultural response to and definition of what have come to be called children’s classics emerges, in part, from nostalgic adults who are attached to their reading experiences of such books.
But when is fanfic no longer fanfic? If you are a published author, then it’s called a sequel—apparently. Earlier this year a colleague recommended to me William Horwood’s Tales of the Willows series. These books were published in the 90s. But don’t give me too hard a time for not knowing about them earlier. Remember, I live under a rock.
The Willows in Winter, Toad Triumphant, The Willows and Beyond, and The Willows at Christmas are four short books by William Horwood, who, as you might guess, picks up the story of Mole, Rat, Badger, Toad, and Otter from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.
The Wind in the Willows found its way onto my literary landscape early in my reading life. I remember my mother reading it out loud to me, and I read it later again and again. I’ve even taught the book a couple of times. Teaching the book to a children’s literature class, however, can get problematic. For one, the book has no sympathetic female characters, and the River Bank itself is populated only by males. As my children’s literature classes are mostly female students, you can guess the response. Fortunately for me, my classes are filled with bright students, who are both critical and forgiving readers, so we talk about it, and no one trashes the book. Teaching Tolkien’s The Hobbit presents me with the same problem—no female characters. I got used to identifying the fact right away, so no one is stewing over it while I gush about the book.
Back to Horwood. When an author picks up a story and creates his or her own, I never quite know what to do with it. But that’s just me. If you are looking for further adventures with Mole, Rat, and the rest, then you won’t be disappointed. Horwood works hard to remain true to Grahame’s style, and the various adventures of toad are as whacky and thoughtless as in the original book.
I read The Willows and Beyond first, which may have been a mistake. This book introduces the next generation—as it were—and it sees the return of such characters as the Sea Rat. But the paradise of the River Bank has become infected, which leads to (spoiler alert here) the dissolution of this particular utopia. Goodbye golden age.
I loved the adventures of Toad, but I think even more I loved the insular nature of the River Bank. It was a place set apart—safe and yet full of manageable danger and adventure. It was a place that spoke to me of home, of friendship, and days without end.
My sense of the River Bank as a place set apart comes right from the first chapter of the book. Mole asks about what he sees in the blue distance, something that might be the smoke of towns, and he gets a careful admonishment from Rat:
“Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,” said the Rat. “And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all. Don’t ever refer to it again, please. Now then! Here’s our backwater at last, where we’re going to lunch.”
Rat and Mole in fact visit the Wide World during their adventures with toad, but that never took away from my sense of the River Bank as a world set apart. Perhaps this is my own nostalgia in operation, but I don’t care.
If you don’t want anyone, not even an author, messing with your books and the worlds you hold dear, then I would avoid fanfic and writers such as Horwood. But if you want more of the world of the willows and the River Bank, then check out these books. They aren’t long, so get them all, find a quiet place, and feast on these new adventures with familiar characters.

The Books of Summer

Summertime is about many things, but for me it’s always about finding new books. Such books often become landmarks in my reading life.
In July of 1999, my children and I moved into a new house. It was a major change for us, especially after five years of University housing. The house felt big, and in some ways we missed the slightly cramped, and badly designed rowhouse where we had lived for five years.
We spent a couple of weeks unpacking and settling in. At that time, I still read books on cassette tape. Books for blind readers hadn’t yet advanced into the digital age. I had a small library of books on tape that I read and reread, and I got what I could from the CNIB Library in Toronto, and Recordings for the Blind in the states. But before we left our old house, a neighbour, a lovely mother of three named Rachel, gave me a book on tape—six cassettes bound together with an elastic band. I remember shoving the book in with my things and forgetting about it.
Once things settled down, I found the book and decided to read it. It was a rainy July that year—wet and cold. It wasn’t the hot July thunderstorm weather that you usually get here in Edmonton; it was a drizzly, cold rain that never seemed to end. Worse yet, my house was freezing. I hadn’t figured out how to work the electronic thermostat, so we all had to put on sweaters and slippers to keep warm.
My kids were out with their mom one afternoon, and I remembered the book Rachel had given me. I found the book, found the first tape, and started reading. The book was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a pirated copy of a Random House recording read by Jim Dale.
I had heard of the book, but I knew nothing about it. My kids knew about it from school, but their mom didn’t want either daughter reading it until one of us had read it first.
It took me a while to sort out Rowling’s world, and I wasn’t sure I liked it at first. It seemed to be breaking all of the rules of good fantasy I’d learned from reading Tolkien and Lewis. There was too much overlap between the regular and wizarding worlds, and how could anyone read Dumbledore and not think of Gandalf, or even Merlin from T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone? But I kept going, and soon I was hooked.
Reading in my room another afternoon, my youngest walked in to ask me a question. She heard Jim Dale read:
“Urgh – troll boogers.”
This of course is the scene in chapter 10, in which Harry and Ron rescue Hermione from the mountain troll in the girl’s bathroom.
 “What are you reading?” asked my youngest, a little incredulously.
That summer began my love for the Harry Potter books. My children were soon reading them as well, and in not very long we were all caught up to The Prisoner of Azkaban. Then began the wait for the next book.
Within a couple of years I was reading books in a digital format. I was stunned at being able to go to the CNIB Library cite and download a book, which I could then read. I discovered Audible, and began buying and downloading books from there as well. It was a shift in the way I thought about books. I could browse online for a book and then get it—new books as well. My life to that point had been characterized by waiting and waiting for books—waiting  for them to come in the mail, waiting for books to be recorded by volunteers, or waiting for books to just become available in a format I could read.
The Harry Potter books weren’t available digitally, but I started buying them on CD. Both my daughters had their own CD players, and some days you could hear the voice of Jim Dale coming from three separate rooms in the house. We talked about the books, argued about characters, and my youngest even invented Harry Potter Jeopardy, which I can tell you led to some lively evenings.
My kids and I have read and talked about many books over the years. I sat with both of them as they first learned to read picture books, and later as they moved onto chapter books. Their tastes have diverged over the years, but we always had the Harry Potter books in common. Regardless of what you might think of the series, its power for us was as much the way it brought us together as a family of readers as it was the story.