HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby
Author: Charles KIngsley
Illustrator: Warwick Goble
Publisher: Serenity Publishers, republished in 2008s
Related website: http://www.SerenityPublishers.com (publisher)
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Recommended reading level: For children but best understood by adults
Rating: **** 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Kingsley, Charles. The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby (originally published in 1863 by Macmillan, London, England; republished in 2009 by Serenity Publishers LLC, An Arc Manor Company, P. O. Box 10339, Rockville, MD 20849). Ten year old Tom is a young chimney sweep who lives in a great town in the North country of England. He has never been taught to say his prayers or even heard of God and Christ except in cursing. He works for an abusive master named Mr. Grimes who drinks beer and smokes a pipe. One day, while cleaning chimneys in an upper-class house, he accidentally comes out in the room of a young girl named Ellie where a nurse accuses him of breaking in to steal. He runs away, falls into a river, and is transformed into a “water-baby,” as he is told by a caddisfly. There he begins his moral education under the major spiritual leaders of his new world such as the fairies Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby (a reference to the Golden Rule), Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and Mother Carey, as well as Ellie, who became a water-baby after he did.
In his final adventure, Tom must travel to the Other-end-of-Nowhere in an attempt to help Grimes, his old master, who is being punished for his misdeeds. Will Tom be successful? What will happen to him? Author Charles Kingsley was a minister, and even though he was an advocate of Christian Socialism and a supporter of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Water-Babies is a didactic moral fable that is thematically concerned with Christian redemption. Kingsley also includes satire about child labor and how England treats its poor. The children’s novel was written in 1862 and 1863 as a serial for Macmillan’s Magazine; it was first published in its entirety in 1863. In the style of Victorian-era novels, it expresses many of the common prejudices of that time period, with dismissive or insulting references to the poor, Americans, Jews, blacks, Catholics, and the Irish. The story was extremely popular in England, and was a mainstay of British children’s literature for many decades, but these views may have played a role in its gradual fall from popularity.
While the book was written for children, much of it will be best understood by adults. It abounds in references to faith (“The most wonderful and the strongest things in the world, you know, are just the things which no one can see”), Scripture quotations (“’We are fearfully and wonderfully made,’ said old David”), and the desire for heaven (“But we, I hope, shall go upward to a very different place”). One reader reviewer noted, “But do NOT buy the abridged version (Puffin). One thing that is taken out is Kingsley’s many sarcastic references to American democracy. The publishers have taken out the anti-American sentiment to sell more copies to Americans.” Evidently, my version is unabridged. Additionally, perhaps some of the other prejudicial items were removed to make it less offensive, and possibly some of the adult satire was omitted to make it more understandable for children. There is a lot of description with many side comments, so it does read rather slowly at times, but it is still interesting.