Tom Moorhouse and Holly Swain tell us about The New Adventures of Mr Toad
Sequels are always popular with publishers and with readers too. Kate Saunders won the Costa Children’s Book Award for Five Children on the Western Front, Hilary McKay revisited Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in Wishing for Tomorrow, and Lou Kuenzler recently told Black Beauty’s story from a different point of view in Finding Black Beauty. Now Tom Moorhouse has written a new set of adventures for Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Toad, illustrated by Holly Swain. The stories are firmly set in the modern day, and star three young descendants of the original characters as well as Mr Toad himself, ingeniously brought back to life.
What was it like to reimagine such a well-loved character? ‘The idea wasn’t mine’, explains Tom immediately, ‘I don’t think I’d have been brave enough to come up with it. When Oxford University Press approached me with the idea of writing a sequel I thought about it - for really not very long - and decided there’s absolutely no way I could write a direct sequel. For a start nobody writes like Kenneth Grahame anymore, and in fact I don’t think you could write that way now, so we had to come up with an idea that would allow a sequel without any sort of direct comparison to Wind in the Willows. I thought wouldn’t it be good if Mr Toad had been chucked into his ice house and frozen, and then cryogenically hatched out in the modern day because that way it allows us to have Mr Toad in his original incarnation but now in a completely different setting, and with unlimited wealth.’
Was he tempted to reinvigorate any of the other original characters, Ratty for example, since water voles are Tom’s specialist subject? ‘I would have loved to, but I think if you’re writing about characters already established that you owe it to the person who first wrote about them to write about them in the same sort of a voice and I don’t think Ratty would work in a book for 7 – 9 year olds. I have no idea what age group the original Wind in the Willows was aimed at but it certainly isn’t 7- 9 year olds. I played around with a lot of writing styles when I was working on the book and I tried to emulate Kenneth Grahame, but it just didn’t work. It felt heavy and ponderous and ersatz and so I think breaking away from that is the way forward. In the original, if you read any of their interactions that Ratty and Mole have, they’re always very staid, with the occasional flare up of emotion, and The New Adventures are not that sort of book. We wanted anarchic fun which works well with the character of Mr Toad but not with the other original characters.’
One of the reasons the story works so well, is because of Mr Toad’s response to the modern world. Unsurprisingly, he absolutely loves it. ‘Yes’ agrees Tom, ‘And you know it’s always going to end in disaster! I think the reason everyone loves Toad is because essentially he’s a complete child - thoroughly well-meaning but also petulant and arrogant, kind of the best and the worst of us.’
When not writing fiction Tom works as an ecologist at Oxford University's Zoology Department and has studied water voles. Will future adventures move away from the predominantly urban setting of the first story to the river banks? ‘Yes and no is the answer to that,’ says Tom. ‘The third story is very much set on the river, and the nice thing about that is that it allows lots of fun references to the original Wind in the Willows though it’s in the modern world, so there are speed boats involved. It is important to have those pastoral moments but they can only be very brief I think writing for this age group.’
He’s enjoyed finding ways to reference the original book, in the names of places and in some of the things that happen. ‘One thing that’s always interested me is that whenever there’s a new version of Wind in the Willows published, editors always leave out the Piper at the Gates of Dawn and for me that misses the point of the book. It’s such a beautiful, lyrical passage, reflecting the way the animals look at the world and for me that’s what animal books are all about. I do want to get references in, to stimulate people to go and look at and read the original.
The challenge of writing for this age group is something Tom enjoyed very much, as well as the fun of working with an illustrator. Holly Swain is the latest in a long line of illustrators to draw Mr Toad, and like Tom, she too was quite nervous at the prospect. ‘It was quite daunting in a way, and I tried not to think about what had gone before. I deliberately didn’t look at any of the other amazing books because I wanted it to be fresh. It was useful having the new characters in it, so that it did feel very fresh, but I was very conscious too of the fact that it was the first of four books – that in itself is quite a daunting prospect.’
The illustrations are in green and black, with the occasional splashes of red, a new way of working for Holly. ‘I did have quite a few try outs’ she explains, ‘I used watercolour, colour pencil and dip pen. Some of the characters lent themselves to that way of working – obviously Toad was going to be green, Mo and Ratty in the black colours, so it was process of trial and error. The most tricky illustrations were at the end of the book where I’ve got the sky to do – not having any blue, that was difficult!’
She didn’t meet Tom until after the first book was finished, and has since had cause to call upon his vole expertise. ‘One of the later books features a creature I hadn’t ever heard of – a Bank Vole. I asked Tom about them because I’d looked them up and drawn them but couldn’t really work out how big they were. I got a fantastically detailed scientific response from Tom about how much they weigh' (she giggles a bit at the memory). 'It's good to know that I can ask him things.’
She’s now finished book two, is working on book three and enjoying it very much. ‘They’re a great set of stories and so much fun to work on. I didn’t know when I started what books two and three would be about and it’s been really interesting for me to read them, they just get better and better.’
The New Adventures of Mr Toad by Tom Moorhouse and Holly Swain is published by Oxford Children’s Books, £5.99 pbk.