Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Children’s Books

Watership Down – Richard Adams

I’d heard a lot of pop-culture references to Watership Down, but before I read it I didn’t know anything really about it (except that it was about bunnies…? maybe?). Turns out it’s a 1972 children’s adventure novel by English author Richard Adams, based on a meandering story he made up to entertain his daughters during a long road trip.

Watership Down - Richard Adams - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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(His daughters told him it was so good, he should write it down, so he did… only to have it rejected by several publishers on the grounds that it was “too grown up for children”. So, I guess the Adams clan have mature tastes?)

The story is set in the Berkshire and Hampshire countryside, near where Adams and his family lived. As I suspected, it revolves around a group of anthropomorphised rabbits from the Sandleford warren. The inciting incident comes quickly, when a small weirdo rabbit named Fiver has a “frightening vision” of the warren’s imminent destruction.

He convinces his best mate, Hazel, to help him round up as many of their rabbit friends as possible and escape before the Bad Thing comes (he doesn’t know what it is, just that it’s Bad). Most of the rabbits tell them to bugger off, understandably, but a handful of them agree to follow Hazel and Fiver into the great unknown.

The plot device of a psychic rabbit was really quite baffling, but I tried to just go with it – and good thing, too, because most of the action throughout Watership Down relies on Fiver sensing trouble. Other than that, Adams does a pretty convincing job of depicting the lives of rabbits. He even invents language, culture, and mythology for them, so it’s thoroughly believable… again, aside from the preternatural foresight thing.

Anyway, Hazel and Fiver and co. repeatedly escape predators by the skin of their teeth. Sometimes, they befriend them (like the large seagull who later returns to help them fight off other Evil rabbits). They join – and then escape – a warren where rabbits are being bred for food. They build their own warren on Watership Down (yes, it’s the name of a place, rather than a plot point about a sinking vessel), but soon have to face up to the existential crisis of an absence of does (female rabbits). They manage to collect a couple from a nearby farm, but not enough to stave off their colony’s collapse.

So, their big final battle – the long-awaited climax of Watership Down – sees them infiltrate the Efrafra warren, ruled by the tyrannical despot General Woundwort. They manage to smuggle out enough does for requisite babymaking (like rabbits, etc), but the General is not easily defeated.

I’m not sure if I read it “right”, but Watership Down seemed to me like an indictment of anthropogenic climate change and the exploitative agricultural practices of capitalism, cloaked in a children’s story with a few made up words (the language of “lapine”, as invented by Adams). Others have read all kinds of stuff into it, too; it could be an allegory for class struggle, the Cold War, fascism, extremism… basically, Hazel and Fiver and co. are an oppressed minority who just want to LIVE, dammit, and they’ll fight to the death against the forces that would stop them doing so.

Adams, though, insists that it was never his intention to mirror such grown-up realities in his children’s book. He intended Watership Down to be “only a made-up story … in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls,” he told the BBC in 2007. Still, whatever he meant by it, it clearly has motifs and themes that work on multiple levels.

It seemed unnecessarily long, though, particularly toward the end. It all just got a bit formulaic: just as you think the rabbits are safe and happy, a new danger arises that looks set to doom them, only they overcome it by working together and appreciating each other’s strengths. As an armchair editor, I would’ve suggested splitting the story in two, and made the whole Efrafra business a sequel (or, at least, a second volume – Watership Down 2: Back In The Warren).

As it stands, the popularity of this children’s book about bunnies persists, fifty years after its release. It’s won a bunch of awards (including the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize), and it’s been adapted for film and television multiple times (including a 2018 Netflix series). I’m glad to have read it, so I can finally “get” all those pop culture references, but I doubt I’ll be revisiting it – even if there was a kid around to read it to, I doubt I could get them to sit still for long enough.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Watership Down:

  • “Uhh it was good uhh hmm which should I say uuh genralwoundfart or whatever the &)@?@! His name is loo” – nickie
  • “I believe that some time ago, some kid read this, and then began replacing the rabbits for zombies, thus, the walking dead was born.” – Mauricio Cerna
  • “Beautiful writing and boring story!” – N. Lassiter
  • “I did not enjoy Watership Down. It hink that it was pointless to write a 400+ page long book about bunnies having problems.” – N:) *

The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Prior to reading The Little Prince (or, in the original French, Le petite prince), I would have told you that I was “familiar” with it. I would have simply left out the fact that my familiarity only extended to the bits they quoted in One Tree Hill voice-overs and epigraphs of famous novels. Turns out, there’s a lot more to this children’s book than quaint aphorisms…

The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupery - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Little Prince has a strange history (like most timeless classic children’s books). The author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was a French aviator, childless, and (at the time of writing) living under grueling war-time exile. How he managed to both write and illustrate such a perennially popular moral allegory, a “spiritual biography”, under those circumstances, I’ll never know…

It was first published in New York, in April 1943, but not published in France – or French, the language in which Saint-Exupéry wrote – until after Liberation, as all of the author’s writings had been banned by the Vichy regime. “The unusual bilingualism of the story’s publication,” explains the introduction to my edition, “means that the first translation, by Katherine Woods, is properly speaking as much the original work as the French text from which it was drawn.”

From that stumble start, The Little Prince has gone on to become the most translated French book in the world, appearing now in over 300 languages and dialects (my copy was translated into English – again – by T.V.F. Cuffe). Over 140 million copies have been sold worldwide.

Another note on my particular edition (the Penguin Modern Classic): it also contains another work by Saint-Exupéry, Letter To A Hostage. It’s an open letter to a friend of the author’s, a Jewish intellectual who was in hiding in occupied France. They make for strange bedfellows, I thought at first, but reading the dedication of The Little Prince (one of the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered), it made sense:

To Léon Werth

I ask children who may read this book to forgive me for dedicating it to a grown-up. I have a genuine excuse: this grown-up is the best friend I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up understands everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: this grown-up lives in France, where he is cold and hungry. He needs a lot of consoling. If all these excuses are not enough, I will dedicate the book to the child whom this grown-up used to be, once upon a time. All grown-ups started off as children (though few of them remember). So I hereby correct my dedication:

To Léon Werth when he was a little boy.

The Little Prince (Page 3)

Could somebody please pass the tissues? *sniffle*

Ahem, to the story: The Little Prince begins with the narrator describing grown-ups, specifically their natural inability to perceive or understand the things that are truly important. He explains that, as a child, he’d hoped to become an artist, but none of the grown-ups understood his drawings and they encouraged him to pursue more “reasonable” lines of work.

So, from the beginning, you can see the magic of The Little Prince: as with all great children’s books, it addresses the reader on their level, with respect and empathy. The fantasy to follow in The Little Prince works precisely because it employs the logic of children, and celebrates their imaginative capacity, without getting bogged down in making things “realistic” for the grown-ups.

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children always and forever to be giving explanations.”

The Little Prince (Page 6)

So, the narrator grew up to be a pilot, and one day his plane crashes in the Sahara desert (clearly drawing on Saint-Exupéry’s real-life experience, because believe it or not, that actually happened to him – more than once!). As he’s trying to fix his plane, and worrying about running out of water, a young boy – the titular “little prince” – appears as if by magic, demanding that the pilot draw him a sheep. They become fast friends, and over the course of the following eight days, the little prince slowly reveals the story of his life.

The little prince came from a very tiny “home planet” (which the narrator identifies as a house-sized asteroid), with a few very small volcanoes and a variety of plant life, including one very special rose that the prince treasured above all else. He left the rose, and his home planet, to explore the universe. Along the way, he encountered a series of satirical caricatures of grown-ups (including the “king” who had no subjects, forced to issue commands to the sun to rise and set in order to exert his power, and the “businessman” who claimed he owned all the stars and proved it by counting them).

When the little prince landed on Earth, at first he assumed it was uninhabited, as he landed in the middle of stark desert. Eventually, he met a snake, and then some flowers, and then a fox (who begged the little prince to “tame” him, so that they might become friends).

At this point, the character of the fox offers perhaps the most often-shared gem of wisdom from The Little Prince. It is the story’s keynote aphorism: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux,” (“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”) Judging by the drafts and notes, Saint-Exupéry reworded and rewrote that line at least 15 times before settling on this version.

Despite making all these new friends, by the time the little prince meets the pilot, he is dreadfully homesick, and by the time he’s told his story, the pilot is dying of thirst. The little prince finds the pilot a water well and then tells him that it’s time return to his home planet (which might “look like” him dying of a snake bite, but actually he’s simply leaving his shell behind).

The Little Prince ends with a drawing of the landscape where the little prince and the narrator met, and where the snake took the little prince’s corporeal life. The narrator asks the children reading the book that if they ever find themselves in that place, and they meet a little boy with golden curls, that they contact him immediately so that he may be reunited with his friend.

Do you need a(nother) tissue? I don’t blame you. It’s an incredibly moving ending, holy heck – unlike anything I’ve read in contemporary children’s book.

But here’s the clincher (take a deep breath, this is going to hurt): The Little Prince is a very strange case of life coming to imitate art. Saint-Exupéry disappeared without a trace on his eighth high-level reconnaissance flight on 31 July 1944, just over a year after The Little Prince was published. He was never found, nor does anyone have any clue what happened to him and his plane. Léon Werth, the dear friend to whom the book is dedicated, did not learn of Saint-Exupéry’s presumed death until a month later, via radio broadcast (remember that he was in hiding). Even then, it wasn’t until November that year that he learned of The Little Prince, the book his friend had written for him. Ugh, I can’t – it’s just TOO SAD!

Sad as it may be, I suppose it’s fitting: almost everything, every symbol and every character, in The Little Prince was drawn from some aspect of Saint-Exupéry’s life. As I mentioned earlier, there’s the pilot and his crash landing in the Sahara, but there’s also the little prince’s rose (reportedly inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s wife), the small home planet with volcanoes (inspired by Guatemala, where Saint-Exupéry recuperated from another crash), and so on.

The Little Prince might be a short and simple story, but don’t be deceived: Saint-Exupéry poured his whole heart and soul into it. He wrote and illustrated the manuscript over the summer of ’42, working “long hours with great concentration”, usually at night (when he felt most creatively “free”), spurred on by truly scary quantities of black coffee. His biographer, Paul Webster, said: “Behind Saint-Exupéry’s quest for perfection was a laborious process of editing and rewriting which reduced original drafts by as much as two-thirds.” He would often wake up in the morning still at his desk, with his head on his arms over the pages. Unsurprisingly, he also suffered from a number of stress-related health problems, and marital strife.

Initial reviewers were a bit flummoxed by the multi-layered story of The Little Prince. The book found only modest success at first, spending just two weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. I think (or hope) we’re now more accepting of books with complex messages, ones that can appeal to multiple age groups – given that The Little Prince now sells almost two million copies each year and has become a cultural icon, it would seem to be the case. Still, don’t go into it if you’re looking for something twee and lighthearted. Every copy, in all the languages across the world, should probably be sold with a big box of tissues.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Little Prince:

  • “there’s something about reading this book that makes you feel at peace with yourself and the whole world. The Little Prince knows whats up” – Malanie Beverly
  • “What can be said about this little story. It is timeless. It is as fresh as spring water. Thank you” – Bea

The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Keeper-Upperers, I made a whoopsy! Back when I reviewed Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, I mistakenly told you it was the only children’s book on my reading list – I forgot entirely about this bad boy! The Wind In The Willows is a children’s story written by Kenneth Grahame, first published in 1908. Set in a rural part of Edwardian England, it follows the adventures (or misadventures, as it were) of four anthropomorphised animals: Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad.

The Wind In The Willows - Kenneth Grahame - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Now, oddly for such a delightful little tome, The Wind In The Willows was actually born of some pretty miserable circumstances. Kenneth Grahame had a pretty rough trot, on the whole. His mother died when he was five, and his father had a pretty hectic drinking problem, so the kids were dumped with their grandmother. It was all rather shitful, but Grahame made the most of it. His Grandma lived near the Thames and he loved exploring the area, mucking around, as kids do. He survived his rough start, and went on to score a pretty swanky secretary job at the Bank Of England. He married at the age of 40, and the following year his wife had their only child, a sickly boy named Alastair (nicknamed Mouse), born premature and blind in one eye.

Raising Alastair was tough, and a few years after his birth Grahame decided he was jack of the rat race. He resigned from his position at the bank and moved the whole family back to the country, where he felt most at home. He spent a lot of his time “simply messing about in boats”, and began expanding the bedtime stories he had made up for Alastair into a manuscript. The characters of Toad, Mole, Ratty, and Badger had been fixtures in the Grahame household during Alastair’s childhood; even when Papa Kenneth went off on one of his boating trips, he would write letters home containing tales of their adventures for his son. So, The Wind In The Willows must’ve been a walk-up start, right? Kid tested, and approved?

Well, not really: a number of publishers rejected the manuscript outright. Everyone was expecting books more in the vein of his previous works (he’d already published The Golden Age, and Dream Days, by this point), and they were sorely disappointed. When he finally found a publisher willing to take a chance on his children’s story, the critics panned it… but the public loved it! Bookstores kept selling out, so multiple print-runs were required, in quick succession. Plus, it got a ringing endorsement from President Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote to Grahame to say he had “read it and reread it, and [had] come to accept the characters as old friends”.

I’m with Teddy: The Wind In The Willows is a brilliant book. And it’s certainly not “just” a children’s story. There’s plenty in there for adults, like this gem:

“The best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.”

The Wind In The Willows (Page 13)

The story starts with Mole, who decides he can’t be fucked cleaning his messy house, so he abandons it altogether and goes to crash on a mate’s couch (BIG MOOD!). He and his mate, Rat, have a wonderful time boating every day and living together. A more contemporary interpretation of this story offers a queer reading of their relationship, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.

They decide to visit their mate, Toad. Now, Toad’s a real larrikin; he has a tendency to jump on every fad, and the latest is his growing obsession with motorcars. He’s kind of a garbage person, with his criminal tendencies and blatant fat-phobia and all, but he’s also debonair and charming in his over-the-top way, and anyone who says he isn’t their favourite character is lying.

Mole decides he would also like to meet the elusive Badger, but gets really lost trying to find his house. Rat rescues him from freezing to death in the woods, and on their way home they end up stumbling upon Badger’s abode anyway. He offers them shelter from the snowstorm outside, and winds up joining their growing posse.

Meanwhile, Toad’s obsession with motorcars spirals out of control. While Badger, Ratty, and Mole are sitting around drinking tea like grown-ups, Toad steals and crashes several cars, winds up hospitalised on more than one occasion, and has to pay out big money in fines. The crew holds an intervention for him, but he escapes and steals a convertible for one last joyride (that, of course, lands him in jail). He eventually escapes, and has all kinds of mishaps and misadventures making his way home.

When he rejoins his mates, he convinces them to gang up and banish the weasles and stoats that have been squatting in his home during his incarceration absence. Toad learns a few important lessons about humility and friendship, and they all live happily ever after.

I thought The Wind In The Willows was going to be a light, easy read, and it was… but not as light or as easy as I was expecting. It seemed to require a lot more focus than Alice, but (granted) I did have a nasty head cold at the time I was reading it and my brain felt like Swiss cheese, so it might not have been entirely Grahame’s fault. I didn’t have it as bad as some folks: a historian was found tortured and murdered in his home in 2016, because a thief had broken in, intent on finding the rare first edition hidden somewhere in the house. (Seriously, this actually happened!)

The Wind In The Willows would be a great one to read out loud to kids, but that’s not all it’s good for. It’s also a great pick for adults who need a little bit of a break from lofty literature (like I did after last week). And I’m glad Grahame managed to turn his shitty life circumstances into a wonderful and enduring story that has become such a major source of joy in so many childhoods – good on him!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Wind In The Willows:

  • “The plot was awful it was silly and profane. Don’t you dare waste your time on this book please heed me don’t download this horrible awful mean.nasty ugly book!!!!!!!!!!!!” – Shannon
  • “I have no idea how to read or write. Was disappointed when this wasn’t hentai.” – F.T.
  • “This is my very favorite book. Nice Kindle version. The illustrations look good on my iPad.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I am a young reader and I found NO interest in this book.
I think that this should have more drama.” – garcia

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

It seems fitting that, for the only bona-fide children’s book on my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, I picked up a gorgeous illustrated edition brand-new from my favourite second-hand bookstore. As Alice herself says, “What is the use of a book without pictures, or conversation?”.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865, written under the pen name Lewis Carroll (real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). The story’s origins are as pure as you can imagine. Carroll took a little boat ride in 1862 with his friend Henry Liddell’s three daughters. Because boats can be boring as fuck, Carroll improvised a story about a bored little girl named Alice who goes looking for adventure, to keep the three girls entertained for the ride. They loved it so much that the character’s namesake – Alice Liddell – asked him to write it down for her, and he set about it the very next day.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – the story of a fantasy world down a rabbit hole, complete with anthropomorphised animals, chess pieces, and cards – went on to become become one of the most enduring literary nonsense books of all time. Its characters and imagery are basically inescapable in popular culture: from film, to theater, to rock bands, to costumes, to homewares, precocious little Alice can be found everywhere. Amazon lists the age-range for the book as 8-11 years, but fuck that – it’s a story for all ages, and ageism is for bores anyway.

I was somewhat familiar with the story already, despite never having seen the Disney film. (I’ll pause for effect here, to allow you to process your shock.) My parents opposed the American cultural imperialism perpetuated by Walt Disney, so I instead grew up with the real-action version on VHS. In the course of putting together this review, I went back and watched clips of it on YouTube, and the nostalgia hit me like a brick!

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you shouldn’t bother reading the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland just because you saw the film a million times when you were a kid. Reading the book is a completely different experience to watching the movie. The cleverness of the wordplay is a lot more noticeable in writing, for starters. I was a tiny bit heartbroken to realise that my favouritefavouritefavourite line from the movie doesn’t work quite as well in print…

“‘Why did you call him Tortoise if he wasn’t one?’ Alice asked.
“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (try reading it aloud if you don’t get it)

… but that’s the exception rather than the rule. As you’d expect, given the way that Carroll came up with the story, the best way to experience Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is probably to read it aloud to children. That way, you get the full impact of its genius.

Trying to describe the plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – covering off all the major characters and misadventures – in a couple of paragraphs for a review is basically impossible. Not because the story is difficult to follow, by any means, but because it’s all higgledy-piggledy nonsense, and you just sort of have to go along with it. A girl falls down a rabbit hole, eats and drinks some weird crap, grows and shrinks inexplicably, meets a lot of talking animals, battles evil queens and narrowly escapes having her head chopped off… on and on it goes! It’s both the best and worst acid trip you’ll find in all of literature.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is so nonsensical that it basically becomes a blank canvas onto which you can project any type of story you want. For example, my preferred fan-theory-slash-alternate-reading is that Alice is the victim of a severe mental illness (she experiences auditory and visual hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, substance abuse, animal cruelty – it’s all there!). You could also read it as a vegan manifesto, if you want – especially one particular scene where the Red Queen introduces Alice to a mutton joint (“would you cut or eat someone to whom you had just been introduced?” the story asks). Carroll worked in a bunch of lessons on mathematics and logic, if you’re into that sort of thing. Literary scholar Melanie Bayley argued that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland should actually be read as a scathing satire of new modern mathematics emerging in the mid-19th century. That’s not really my bag, but I’m sure Carroll was clever enough to do it! The most obvious allusions, though, are the historical references and the lessons in philosophy:

“‘Contrariwise,’ continued Tweedledee, ‘if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.'”

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

Carroll also liked a bit of poetry in his prose, and towards the end the verses become longer and more frequent. Everyone comes to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the Jabberwocky poem, but my personal favourite is Old Father William.

None of this did Carroll much good in his day. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was very pointedly not named in an 1888 poll of the most popular children’s stories. It received pretty poor reviews, with critics paying more attention to the pretty pictures than to the story itself. It cruised along, almost unnoticed, until the very late 19th century when it won a new legion of fans – including (reportedly) Queen Victoria, and a young Oscar Wilde.

Still, Carroll got the last bloody laugh, didn’t he? The book has never been out of print. There are now over a hundred English editions, as well as editions in no fewer than 174 other languages. And, if that weren’t enough, little smart-arse Alice continues to be a major source of influence and inspiration for art of all kinds, over a century after that boring boat trip.

My tl;dr summary would be this: Alice is probably a delusional alcoholic, but reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a fun little trip down memory lane, regardless. Read it to feel like a kid again!

P.S.: Why is a raven like a writing desk? Carroll got so sick of people asking him the answer to the riddle that he wrote, in a later edition:

“Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, ‘because it can produce few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought; the riddle as originally invented had no answer at all.”

I, for one, think that this is a super-lame and boring answer. I prefer the solution suggested by Sam Lloyd (a “puzzle expert”, which I can’t believe is a real job): “because Poe wrote on both”. Geddit?

My favourite Amazon reviews of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

  • “NO ILLUSTRATIONS!!!” – Steven Josefowicz
  • “Great great great
    I travelled in space love it!” – insect
  • “Womp wompPay for what ya get. Words on paper.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It’s a classic! Everybody knows that. Right now it is especially meaningful because the characters in Trumps WhiteHouse are so much like the characters in Alice’s “Wonderland.”” – Carol Elkins