Jaqueline Kelly’s RETURN TO THE WILLOWS, Best #KidLit of 2012

return to the willowsJacqueline Kelly, author of the wonderful, historical young adult novel The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, has absolutely knocked my socks off with her newest book, Return to the Willows.

You might have guessed (given the title) that Return to the Willows is a sequel to Kenneth Grahame’s beloved 1908 classic Wind in the Willows, and, dear reader, you’d be right. The Riverbankers are back. Mole, Water Rat, Badger, and of course, Toad of Toad Hall, the arrogant, misguided, motor-car-loving nincompoop amphibian who is, of course, a stand-in for us all, the angel of our worser natures.

I’ve been reading Return to the Willows aloud to my seven year old, and it’s like magic; I don’t know which of us is enjoying it more. Kelly can pull a rabbit out of a hat. Or in the case of this book, many rabbits (they are a nervous, twitchy tribe) and a whole green word of a bygone English era of country hedgerows, burbling brooks, and “messing about in boats” and hampers (yes, hampers) full of picnic delicacies.

My son is enjoying the plot which is zany, adventuresome, with rolicking scrapes. See Toad’s failed attempt to become a balloonist. See Ratty going incognito as a gypsy woman trying to rescue Toad’s nephew Humphrey (don’t ask).

The plot is charming. However, I’m knocked out (and this doesn’t happen to me often) with Kelly’s skilled tone. It’s so like Wind it the Willows, sweet and arch, like Jerome K. Jerome’s dry and hilarious Three Men in a Boat. She excels at dialogue, flourishes, asides, and pacing. I dare you not to laugh out loud, and I’m telling you, I’m a tough crowd, I never laugh out loud, reading, but I am now, every night, from 7:30-8:00.

“Keep reading, Mom!” my son says, and he he asks, as so many of us have asked before, “Will Toad ever learn?” The delightful answer is no.