I still can’t quite believe that I have had the wonderful good fortune to work on an abridgement of The Wind in the Willows. I keep pinching myself, and now I’m black and blue! I wear many hats in my writing and editorial life – I’m mainly a publisher and editor but I’m also a picture book author and poetry anthologist – but never thought I would add an abridgement hat to the collection, too. It might just be my most exciting hat yet.
I say “exciting”, but it was also EXTREMELY daunting. This was my first time abridging a book – how could I do the original justice? And not tread on Kenneth Grahame’s toes? Can you imagine?! To be frank, I was a little overwhelmed. So, like any self-respecting author, I sharpened my pencils, tidied the desk, took the dog out, bought some biscuits and did the laundry. Then, after a stern talk with myself, I made a start.
The Early Stages of Abridging a Classic
I started by looking back. What was it about the story that really appealed to me as a child? A series of very distinct images came to mind – Ratty and Mole in the boat, the snow in the Wild Woods, the train chasing after Toad – but these dramatic moments were all mixed up with an intense love of the world of the book and the connection between the characters. I LOVED the idea of animals living in a parallel world to our own and was fascinated by the domestic detail of how they lived, the warmth and cosiness of their homes, what they ate, how they dressed.
Now, coming to it as an adult and a writer, I can see that Grahame’s magic worked on many levels and this is his true genius. He created a world that children would want to disappear into, characters whom they would want to befriend and adventures that were impossible to resist. No wonder it is a story that has stood the test of time. I wanted our abridged version to evoke the same kind of feelings, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
The first thing to consider was the sheer volume and length. The original story is about 60,000 words long, but our picture book version only had space for 10,000 words – quite a difference! Some moments would have to go, but which ones? I knew I would have to harden my heart and edit the parts that are less well known and might be less appealing to a contemporary reader, whilst keeping as much of the original as I possibly could.
And then, whilst I was thinking about content, I also had to think about the language. Grahame has a very distinct and particular voice and I wanted to make sure that it sang on every page. There are famous lines that I knew readers would want to find, such as “messing about in boats”, and I made these favourite phrases anchor points for particular scenes. Where I made a change or cut, I made sure that the loss wasn’t noticeable in any way. My aim was for things to be seamless, to keep the flow and charming voice throughout . . . and hope that Grahame would approve!
Of course, if we’re thinking about language, then we also have to think about the typical reading age of a picture book audience. The original story appeals to most ages but the language is quite sophisticated, and I wanted our fully illustrated version to appeal to emerging readers. I thought long and hard about the register of the language and what might be an accessible choice of vocabulary. It’s always good to have a few words that might push a reader, but not so many that they become a barrier to enjoyment and comprehension.
“Grahame has a very distinct voice and I wanted to make sure that it sang on every page… My aim was for things to be seamless, to keep the flow and charming voice throughout… and hope that Grahame would approve!”
Working with Kate Hindley
But I couldn’t think about any of these points without also thinking about the illustrations. In a picture book, images and words combine perfectly to tell a story, but The Wind in the Willows is a dense, word-heavy novel – how would we bring the story to life visually? As I studied the book closely, I began to identify the key moments in each chapter – the first sighting of the alluring motor car, the intricacies of Badger’s underground home, the dramatic climax in Toad Hall – and used these cornerstone moments to structure things visually.
Also, I wanted to make sure that Kate Hindley had as many opportunities as possible to work her magic . . . in a picture book, the words are only half the story, and the pictures themselves say so much.
Like Grahame, Kate Hindley is a genius. We have worked on several picture books together, and when we discovered that she was a huge Willows fan, we just knew she was the artist for the job. When I had finished working on the story, Nia Roberts, our Creative Director, carefully set the text in layouts to create plenty of space for Kate’s art. This is the incredible, invisible work that designers do behind the scenes – deciding between full spreads of art versus single pages, or pondering whether a small, simple vignette might be best for a particular moment. Then, when Nia had a rough shape she was happy with, we worked on it together. We perfected page turns for dramatic moments, shifted bits around and so set the pacing for the story visually.
And then it was over to Kate. From the first character sketches to roughs to the finished art, it felt like Christmas every time something new arrived. Picture books don’t just rely on characters but on worlds, and how the characters inhabit those spaces. Kate is extremely skilled when it comes to creating engaging, appealing characters, and her scenes are layered with the most beautiful patterns and quirky details that will keep children absorbed for hours. Even now, I couldn’t tell you what I love more – the intricately detailed Edwardian world or the adorable charm of Mole in his pinstripe suit. I can’t think of a favourite scene because they are ALL brilliant. I do have a particular fondness for the moment where Mole falls in the water after his unsuccessful attempt at rowing . . . the way the objects drift down, Mole’s expression, the ineffable sadness of the lost cake.
But then there’s the cosiness of Badger’s kitchen and the winter store room where Mole and Ratty sleep. And what about the first glimpse of Toad Hall in all its Arts and Crafts splendour? So many wonderful images . . .
What I Enjoyed Most About this Experience
It’s been such a privilege to work on this beautiful book and I hope people will enjoy reading it as much as we have loved creating it. I hope readers will find favourite moments and I hope those moments will stay with them. I’ve discovered a new favourite and it’s a real keeper. It’s the moment when Ratty and Mole find Badger’s home after being lost in the snow. Badger opens the door and greets them both with a little pat on the head each, saying, “This is not the sort of night for small animals to be out.” There is a huge amount of affection in these simple words. Badger might seem a little gruff, but he is full of love for his friends and, for me, that is the key to The Wind in the Willows – it’s packed with adventure but it’s also all about love and friendship. So perhaps my favourite image has to the last one of all, where our four heroes wander through the woods, fixed forever in time as a band of friends who would do anything for each other.
Can’t wait for the home delivery? Indulge in the first few chapters below: