The Water Babies is touted as a fairy tale for a "land baby." Supposedly, the book was written by Kingsley for his then infant son. Even considering an adult reading this aloud to a child, it's difficult to see this book being intended for a terribly young audience. The overall story is whimsical and cute and could be entertaining for a child. But the frequent interjections by the narrator exploring philosophical, scientific, and theological themes are most definitely going to be over the head of any child reader and many/most adult readers. A child would potentially enjoy an abridged version of the story (which is likely what was used for the cartoon versions of the story). And yet, Kingsley definitely intended the book to carry his agenda.
Putting aside the question of intended audience (assuming that "intending" it for children is mostly a ploy to get this book out there and more readily promote his agenda), this book is a very interesting read.
Written amid the hotbed of many scientific pamphlets, essays, and books on evolution, this book attempts to explore many of these theories in an accessible and often satiric way. The story itself involves a young boy, Tom, who is transformed from a human boy into a "water baby" and then needs to "evolve" back into human form. The "evolution" process isn't overt or complex (he doesn't become an ape, as is often the anticipated evolutionary ancestor of humans). Rather, he exists as a water baby in order to be "out of his own world" and undergo a sort of "moral evolution" from a "bad boy" into a civilized, selfless, kind, human boy.
The story was intriguing and had many fairy tale elements not only in that it involved fairies and magic, but also that it posed many morals. It presented core values that people should live by. Two of the main fairies are named "Bedonebyasyouhavedone" and "Doasyouwouldbedoneby" and as such they teach Tom about consequences, the ideas of justice and mercy, and the motivations for being selfless and altruistic in helping your fellow creatures.
Many of the philosophical and scientific ideas are also very interesting to read. There are numerous passages poking fun at evolutionary theorists...both at the arguments for evolution and those against...showing some of the ridiculous holes in each side of the argument.
Where this book was interesting to me is that it showed a way that "evolution" can exist side-by-side with "religion." Even in our modern day, that's at the heart of many arguments. Kingsley essentially presents evolution as a natural adaptive process that creatures undergo. And yet, he identifies it not as some random thing that "just happens", but as the effect of a divine creator...a creator all the more divine for having been able to not only "make creatures" but to "make creatures that can make themselves." Just as God set the planets in motion and doesn't have to actively maneuver them around the universe...God has also put life in motion and doesn't have to actively maneuver the adaptations that life undergoes in order to better survive in different situations.
There is one lengthy example given in the book which could give both theologists and evolutionists pause...in this segment, a group of lazy humans essentially move back out into the jungle and become hairy (so as to weather the elements) and their arms, legs, hands & feet modify so as to be better adapted to climbing trees and their laziness causes them to actually lose language over time...the humans essentially become apes. It doesn't seem that Kingsley is suggesting that humans evolved from apes, but this segment in the story opens itself to contradiction despite its satirical nature.
And...back on topic...I don't want to write a diatribe about evolution, even though that is a large underlying theme of this book.
This novel was widely successful and actually became a staple in England's education system for many years. The language is fun and the story is humorous. The digs he takes at the scientific community are funny but often too obscure (fortunately my copy had endnotes to explain a lot of them).
It's not something I'd read over and over. It's also not something I'm going to throw in front of my kids to read as I'm not sure they'd really enjoy it or "get it"...in fact, they'd probably get bored too soon. Maybe once they hit their teens.