The Perfect Free E-Book for Spring

Wind in the Willows - Rat and Mole on the River

Today I started reading The Wind in the Willows, a wonderful classic tale about the society of animals that lives along the riverbank — including a mole, a badger, a rat, and a toad. It’s available as a free e-book in Amazon’s Kindle store. But it turns out the book has a fascinating history almost as good a story as the book itself.

Author Kenneth Grahame was the secretary of the Bank of England until the age of 49, according to Wikipedia. He hadn’t written a work of fiction in 10 years, but based the book’s most memorable character, Mr. Toad, on his enthusiastic eight-year-old son, Alastair. The book would become a fondly-remembered classic, mixing its funny story with adult allegories celebrating the joy of springtime and the beauty of the great outdoors. “When I was very young…” remembered one reviewer on Amazon, “our school master used to read to us from Wind in the Willows. The stories had a magical quality and a few weeks ago, as a somewhat older person, I got to wondering whether they would still have that sense of enchantment that held us so captivated all those years ago.

“I was NOT disappointed….”

Later A. A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh, joked that “Reading these delicately lovely visions of childhood, you might have wondered that he could be mixed up with anything so unlovely as a bank; and it may be presumed that at the bank an equal surprise was felt that such a responsible official could be mixed up with beauty.” Grahame was in his mid-60s by the time Milne first published his first Pooh story, though Milne once wrote that “I feel sometimes that it was I who wrote it and recommended it to Kenneth Grahame.” Later, when Grahame was 70 years old, A. A. Milne adapted Grahame’s book into a stage play (called “Toad of Toad Hall”), and one night the two men even shared a theatre box together.


He sat there, an old man now, as eager as any child in the audience, and on the occasions (fortunately not too rare) when he could recognise his own words, his eyes caught his wife’s, and they smiled at each other, and seemed to be saying: ‘I wrote that’ — ‘Yes, dear, you wrote that,’ and they nodded happily at each other, and turned their eyes again to the stage.


Milne later wrote an introduction for the book, remembering that it “was not immediately the success which is should have been.” But he also remembers that almost instantly Grahame had attracted some impressive admirers. In 1909, in one of his last month’s in office, Theodore Roosevelt, the president of the United States, took time to write a personal letter in 1909 thanking Kenneth Grahame for his book. (“I felt I must give myself the pleasure of telling you how much we had all enjoyed your book…”) He’d been a bigger fan of Grahame’s earlier books at first, but wrote that “Mrs. Roosevelt and two of the boys, Kermit and Ted, all quite independently, got hold of The Wind in the Willows and took such a delight in it that I began to feel that I might have to revise my judgment.


“Then Mrs. Roosevelt read it aloud to the younger children, and I listened now and then. Now I have read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends… Indeed, I feel about going to Africa very much as the seafaring rat did when he almost made the water rat wish to forsake everything and start wandering.”


Six weeks later, Roosevelt left office — and embarked on a safari of Africa.

Theodore Roosevelt and elephant on African safari

Americans may remember that when Disneyland opened in the 1950s, one of its first rides (“Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”) was inspired by Disney’s cartoon version of Grahame’s book. But what’s less-known is the trouble that Walt Disney had in filming the story. It was intended to be one of his studios first animated movies, just four years after Snow White (their first feature-length cartoon), according to Wikipedia. Unfortunately, the story’s plot violated the Hays Code, the notorious film-production guidelines which covered all American movies.

In the book, Mr. Toad ultimately steals (and crashes) a motor car. And while he goes to jail, he escapes, and remains a misguided but sympathetic character throughout the story. “The sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin,” the Hays Code insisted. Disney’s version ultimately had to be re-written so that Mr. Toad was instead wrongfully framed of stealing the motor car.

Unfortunately, World War II then interrupted the film’s production (as many of Disney’s animators were drafted into the military), while also putting a strain on the studio’s finances. In the end, it took eight years until a shorter version of the cartoon was released instead, with Mr. Toad’s adventures bundled with the animated version of another classic story — The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Mr Toad from cartoon

The seventh chapter of Grahame’s book — “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” — proved to be especially popular. It describes the mole and rat searching for a lost animal, and instead having an almost religious experience when, off in the woods, they hear the distant music of Pan. It was the favorite chapter of A. A. Milne’s wife, remembers his son Christopher, who wrote that she “read to me again and again with always, towards the end, the catch in the voice and the long pause to find her handkerchief and blow her nose…” And 60 years later, in 1967, the rock band Pink Floyd used its title as the name of their debut album.

But here’s the most lovely piece of trivia about the book. Apparently because of his books’ popularity, Grahame was eventually able to retire to the countryside by the River Thames.

And he was finally able to enjoy the idyllic county life that he’d described so lovingly for his own characters.

Wind and the Willows - Ratty and Mole on the river


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The Shortest Kindle Sample Ever?

Okay, this wins the award for what may be the single shortest “Sample” I’ve ever received on the Kindle.

Earlier this month I’d blogged about how you can finally download the original Winnie-the-Pooh onto your Kindle – including its classic black-and-white illustrations by Ernest Shepard. (And yes, those would make some excellent screensaver images!) It’s fun to see them on the Kindle, and even as an adult, it’s still a very fun read. But if you download the book’s sample, they send you exactly one sentence from the book’s first chapter.


“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.”

And that’s it!

Although to be fair, there’s also several illustrations, plus several pages of the humorous introduction to the book that was written by A. A. Milne.


I had written as far as this when Piglet looked up and said in his squeaky voice, “What about Me?”

“My dear Piglet,” I said, “the whole book is about you…”

“So it is about Pooh,” he squeaked. You see what it is…

But imagine clicking through the sample, and discovering that most of it is devoted to things like the the title page, the table of contents, the publisher’s information, and even a disclaimer that Winnie-the-Pooh “is a work of fiction.”


“Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.”

Who knew that so many lawyers lived at the House at Pooh Corner?

How Winnie-the-Pooh came to the Kindle

Last Christmas, I couldn’t find Winnie-the-Pooh books for the Kindle. The only A.A. Milne story I’d found was an obscure comic mystery he’d written in 1922. But by spring, it looks like Pooh bear had magically crept out of the Hundred Acre Wood, and squeezed his way onto the Kindle, since you can now buy Kindle editions of both
Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

And it’s not just the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. A. A. Milne also published two books of children’s poetry – When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Many of the poems mention Christopher Robin, and there’s also a few that are specifically about Winnie-the-Pooh, as Milne explains in the book’s introduction.

Pooh wants us to say that he thought it was a different book; and he hopes you won’t mind, but he walked through it one day, looking for his friend Piglet, and sat down on some of the pages by mistake.

Best of all, they include all of the memorable original illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. Since the illustrations were already in black and white, they look great on the Kindle. And there’s something really precious about seeing those old-fashioned children’s book images on the screen of my 21st-century reading machine.

By the way, am I the only person who thinks A. A. Milne should be one of the authors included among the Kindle’s screensaver images?