A paradise lost;Children's books

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
Classic animal tales are one way to warn children of the threats to wildlife and the natural world, says John Dean.

Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (Methuen pound;7.95) continues to delight children, but a shadow is falling over the riverbank as the wild creatures that inspired such classic tales disappear.

As well as using such stories to celebrate nature, teachers can explore wider environmental themes by investigating the fate of Ratty and Otter's descendants. Ratty was a water vole, now a threatened species, and otter numbers are still slowly recovering from the effects of pesticide poisoning 40 years ago.

Grahame isn't the only writer who would be alarmed at the way in which the natural world has changed since their books first appeared. Beatrix Potter based The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (Frederick Warne pound;3.50) on the red squirrel, common at the turn of the century but now almost extinct in England due to the loss of woodland.

Retellings of countryside classics can point children towards original texts that document the wildlife we have lost. A recent two-volume abridgement of The Wind in the Willows by Inga Moore, published as The Riverbank and Other Stories and The Adventures of Mr Toad (Walker pound;14.99 each) is faithful to the original. Moore's illustrations will win Grahame a new generation of fans.

The same can also be said of Dick King Smith's recently-published Countryside Treasury (Collins Children's Books pound;14.99), an attractive collection of extracts from some of the best writing about the countryside for children, illustrated by Christian Birmingham. Most of the texts are drawn from the past century and the selection includes passages from The Wind in the Willows and Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter, as well as Watership Down by Richard Adams and King-Smith's own story The Sheep-Pig (Babe). Keen readers will be inspired to seek out the full-length stories.

By the 1970s, the fictional countryside idyll had been shattered by writers' notes of realism. In Watership Down (Penguin pound;6.99, first published 1972) Richard Adams charted the effects of a housing development on the lives of a colony of rabbits.

Later, William Horwood used the characters from The Wind in the Willows in his sequels to the original story to illustrate themes that older primary pupils will grasp. For example, in The Willows and Beyond (Collins Children's Books pound;6.99), published in 1996, the "River" becomes polluted by factories and the "Wild Wood" is felled to make way for housing.

For contemporary environmental issues in relatively easy and collectable reads, try the Animal Ark series by Lucy Daniels (more than 40 titles, Hodder pound;3.99 each). The series is linked to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Young Animal Carer of the Year Award. Older primary children might enjoy Colin Dann's Farthing Wood books, which follow the adventures of Adder, Badger, Tawny Owl, Fox and friends (Red Fox pound;2.99 each).

The late Ted Hughes tackles challenging themes with stimulating language in The Iron Man (Faber pound;4.99) and The Iron Woman (Faber pound;4.50).

Today's children have travelled a long way from the innocence of Grahame's riverbank, but perhaps shattering their illusions will help them realise that the future of the countryside lies in their hands.

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