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The Water-Babies(1863) is one of the strangest and most powerful children's books ever published. Written by an Anglican clergyman with an insatiable love of science, the story combines an uplifting moral about redemption with a crash course in evolutionary theory, and has an imaginative exuberance equaled only by Lewis Carroll. Young Tom is a chimney-sweeper's boy who one day falls into a river and drowns, only to be transformed into a water-baby. Through his encounters with friendly fish, curious lobsters, and characters such as Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, he sloughs off his selfish nature and earns his just reward. Tom's comic adventures are constantly interrupted by Kingsley's sideswipes at contemporary issues such as child labor and the British education system, and they offer a rich satiric take on the great scientific debates of the day. The story's linguistic and narrative oddities make it an unclassifiable fantasy that is both a naturalist's handbook and an aquaticPilgrim's Progress, and its vibrant symbolism also reveals some of Kingsley's more private obsessions regarding cleanliness and sanitation reform. An insightful Introduction by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst explores the genesis and context of Kingsley's tale, its linguistic oddities and multiple genres, its delight in nature and scientific discovery mixed with romance and mythic symbolism. Explanatory notes provide a wealth of background information concerning contemporary figures, literature, and events alluded to in the text. The book also includes part of Kingsley's essay "The Wonders of the Shore," in which he first wrote about the myriad creatures living underwater. An attractive gift edition with ribbon marker, wood-engraved chapter initials, and the original illustrations, this volume captures the full richness of Kingsley's bizarre but compelling fairy tale.
Brian Alderson has long been involved in the study of children's literature as editor, translator, lecturer, and exhibitions organizer.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is Fellow and Tutor in English at Magdalen College, Oxford. He is the author of Becoming Dickens, winner of the 2011 Duff Cooper Prize, and he writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and New Statesman.