Featuring the adventures of five children – Edward, Selina, Harold, Charlotte and an unnamed narrator – Kenneth Grahame’s Dream Days was such a critical and popular success that The Wind in the Willows, published ten years later in 1908, was felt to be a disappointment in comparison. A century on, it is clear that this collection of humorous, lyrical and delicately evocative tales had a profound influence on children’s literature. Rather than idolising childhood, Dream Days is, as Julia Eccleshare says in her introduction, ‘a celebration of the imaginative play of children which sets them apart from adults and empowers them at a time when, within the realities of their lives, they are largely powerless’.
In ‘The Twenty-first of October’, Selina, a devoted admirer of Nelson, attempts to celebrate Trafalgar Day by lighting a bonfire – with disastrous consequences. In ‘The Walls Were as of Jasper’ the child-narrator escapes a dull visit to a neighbour’s house by losing himself in the pictures of a beautiful book: ‘Pictures never lied, never shuffled nor evaded; and as for the story, I could invent it myself ’. ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ tells of the friendship between a little boy and a gentle, poetry-writing dragon, who has made his home in the Berkshire Downs and is blissfully unaware of the alarm his presence has caused in the local village. It is up to the little boy to make sure that the imminent arrival of St George does not spell destruction for his new friend.
Dream Days is written from the point of view of an adult looking back, and captures the frustrations of children faced by adults who have ‘forgotten what it is like to be young’. Whether playing at pirates, inventing imaginary realms, visiting the circus or simply squabbling ferociously among themselves, the five children are vividly and convincingly portrayed. Enchanting illustrations by Debra McFarlane make this edition, the only one in print today, one to be cherished.