I purposely went from Zadie Smith’s NW to A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. I find Smith to be—while beautiful and noteworthy—depressing and challenging, so I took a brain-break with one of my very favorites, Pooh Bear. And while Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh series (Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, When We Were Very Young (poetry, actually written first), and Now We Are Six) is one of my all-time favorites, I have never reviewed the books on The Starving Artist. Now I will review the first book, a short ten chapters, Winnie-the-Pooh.
There are no over-arching plots in the Pooh books. They are more a series of vignettes or perhaps short stories, bound together by book glue or, in the case of Winnie-the-Pooh, the pulling back of the curtain to reveal the author as a father telling stories to his son, Christopher Robin, about CR’s stuffed animals, especially his favorite, Winnie-ther-Pooh. This book has many of the famous exploits of Pooh and his friends—Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Eeyore, Kanga, and Roo (not to mention Rabbit’s Friends and Relations)—but not yet Tigger. My copy has the illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard, which are simple, soft, and my favorite. Pooh looks for woozles, tries to trap a heffalump, saves the day during a Hundred Acre Wood flood, discovers the North Pole (which is a stick by the river), and of course eats all the honey.
A. A. Milne was a prolific writer of plays, detective stories, and humor in the early twentieth century. He is now best-known for Pooh, but it’s not where he began. It was his son, Christopher Robin, who inspired him to write When We Were Very Young and then keep going. There is real history here which people usually find fascinating. You may already have heard about it. In the beginning of World War I, a a British-Winnepeg veterinarian named Harry Colebourn was training for the military in Canada. On a train platform, he bought a brown bear cub that was being hawked by a trapper who had killed the bear’s mother. Colebourn took the bear to training and it basically lived with him like a dog and travelled to England with him during that time. When Colebourn received his orders to the frontline, he left Winnipeg (Winnie for short) with the London Zoo. The war went longer than expected, and when it was over Colebourn decided to leave Winnie—who had made a name and home for herself—there. For during the war, in a twist that could never happen nowadays, the gentle, friendly bear became a popular exhibit where children were permitted to enter and play with her, give her hugs, feed her condensed milk. One of Winnie’s most frequent visitors was Christopher Robin with his father. Eventually, CR renamed his favorite teddy bear, Edward, combining “Winnie” with the name he had given a swan he would feed. A. A. Milne had served in WWI, and both he and the people of the world were soothed by the gentle, simple stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and Winnie the bear became more and more famous.
Even after Winnie the bear’s fame, Winnie-the-Pooh rose in popularity. There is little doubt that you have encountered Pooh Bear many times. One of the most famous adaptations of the Pooh stories is Disney’s series of movies and all of the offshoots of those Disney-fied characters. But I’ve encountered tributes to Winnie-the-Pooh all over the place, even in a park in Israel (where he has his own tree and placard). When I was growing up, there was nothing more pleasant to me when sick in bed than to turn on a VHS tape of Winnie-the-Pooh and I actually continued this tradition until I was in college. Also in college, I read Benjamin Hoff’s then-popular Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet, which led me to read the Milne originals. I found a surprise there: the original books (stories, poems) were special, even better than the Disney movies. (Note: Winnie as Milne’s creation has just entered the public domain. There are sure to be many knockoffs in the next few years (there’s already a horror movie), and I wouldn’t mind doing some fan fic or illustrations of my own. Please look for real versions of these books as opposed to hasty PODs riddled with mistakes and ugly copy.)
Yes, A. A. Milne wrote the stories for children, even for his son. But one of the things that I love about a great children’s book (or movie or show) is the way it translates to other stages of life just as effectively. Sure, there are great children’s books that don’t do that, but Milne’s writing works on different levels, so that a child will walk away having heard one thing while a grown-up will have heard another. I suppose this is sort of what the Tao of Pooh and even another book I have on my shelf (Ethan Morrden’s Pooh’s Exercise Book) is saying/capitalizing on. There are winks at adults, wordplay that kids won’t catch, etc., but there is also a transcendent wisdom. You may have just snorted out your nose, but I am definitely not alone in observing Winnie-the-Pooh as borderline wisdom literature. It’s also calming, and cute, and playful, and literarily, well-written. For children’s literature, anyhow.
Obviously, I enjoyed re-reading Winnie-the-Pooh and if you are not too old for such things, I think you might, as well. There are stories to enjoy and even lessons to understand, here. If you’re not too jaded, you’re likely to be charmed. At minimum, read it to your little ones.
The book is so full of great quotes that I didn’t mark them. I wish I had, now, because the quotes found online are a muddle of authentic ones and ones created by Disney, etc.
Even though I love the books more, I love the Winnie-the-Pooh Disney movies, from the oldest to the most recent. Since Tigger is my least-favorite character (at least in Disney version), I don’t love The Tigger Movie so much. My favorites in order are: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Pooh’s Grand Adventure, and Pooh’s Heffalump Movie. I’m not sure I’ve seen the more recent Winnie the Pooh and I could take or leave Piglet’s Big Movie. (There are also a handful of direct-to-TV movies and even, I think, a TV series.) Given more conventional plots and even completely original ones, sometimes, these are great movies for small kids (or sick teens with strange tastes). There is also the live-action, not-really-for-kids movie Christopher Robin, which I have watched and apparently lost the review. Oh bother.