Winnie the Pooh and Penguin, Too!

We are given many things in our childhood, most of which are lost along the way. When I was six months old my uncle, Alan Soffin, gave me (well, my parents) a copy of The World of Pooh by A.A. Milne bearing the following inscription:

November 1958

For Richard

On his .6th birthday: To be read to him until his 6th birthday, whereupon he should undertake the project himself, reading aloud occasionally to his parents’ general enlightenment.

That I still possess the book is surprising; that it is my most valued possession is not. I read it to my daughter when she was young, and thereafter she read it on her own many times. One day she will inherit my copy and, if she decides to have kids, she will read “Grandpa’s copy” to them.

I’m a neither a literary critic, nor an expert on the intellectual subtexts of the Pooh stories, except that I feel and know there are deep rumblings under the activities which occur in the Hundred Acre Wood. A near equivalent seems to me to be the undercurrent of melancholy that runs through Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. They’re different, of course, because the characters in Peanuts never age; whereas the tales of Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin, et al., move inexorably toward the day when Christopher Robin must go to school and leave his friends behind. If you haven’t read the stories in years, you’ve probably forgotten that’s where it all ends—the sadness is there for an adult, but goes right over the heads of kids. When we are young we can’t wait to grow up, and when we are older we cannot help but long for the simplicity of childhood.

Far from being a decrepit senior citizen at age 90, Winnie-the-Pooh is being celebrated around the world, something that most likely would have surprised his creator A.A. Milne. The deceptively simple illustrations by Ernest Shephard are inseparable from the deceptively simple prose. The drawings are charming without being treacly (a good Britishism for something super sweet).

There is cause for great celebration in his anniversary year, for our friends can been visited anew with a most special book titled The Best Bear in All the World, which contains four stories, each written by a different author, and revolves around the seasons.

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My friend, the immensely talented Brian Sibley (author, historian, raconteur, writer of radio plays too numerous to mention—yes, they still engage in that civilized practice in England) has written the story which takes place in winter and introduces a new character to the Hundred Acre Wood: a penguin. As Brian writes in one of the U.K.’s premier newspapers, The Guardian:

Reading Winnie-the-Pooh, it may be tempting to think that A.A. Milne’s charming and insouciant tales about the Bear of Little Brain and his companions in the Hundred Acre Wood tripped easily on to the page with scarcely any authorial involvement. That is not quite the case, as I discovered in contributing to the official sequel, The Best Bear in All the World, which was published … for Pooh’s 90th anniversary.

Today, Milne’s reputation is as a writer for children, but before Christopher Robin and Pooh he was an acclaimed playwright and an accomplished essayist, novelist and writer of light verse. A 1920s polymath, his lighter-than-air wit caught and reflected the gaiety of the decade.

This was the skill set that Milne brought to his books for young readers: a consummate knack for creating pin-sharp characterizations that makes Pooh, Piglet, et al so memorable, and droll, occasionally sardonic, dialogue that appeals to readers of all ages. This is the work of a playwright at play.

Attempting to capture some of those qualities was a challenge, as was trying to replicate Milne’s verbal and stylistic tricks, such as Occasional Flurries of Capital Letters. And as if that wasn’t enough, I took the risky liberty, in my story, “Winter”, of inviting a newcomer to Pooh Corner. Penguin was inspired by a long-overlooked photograph of Milne playing with his son, Christopher Robin, with the teddy bear who would become Pooh, and a toy penguin.

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While my colleagues–Paul Bright, Kate Saunders, Jeanne Willis–and I have been engaged on our Milne “impoohsonations”, illustrator Mark Burgess has been busily capturing the illustrative style of the original decorations by E.H. Shepard.

At 90 years young, Winnie-the-Pooh is still—in the words of Christopher Robin—the Best Bear in All the World.

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You can listen to an entertaining BBC radio interview with Sibley here.

brian-sibley-version-6Brian Sibley

And you must buy several copies of the book and gift them this holiday season. Adults included! (It’s a mere $14.)

If you enjoy Sibley’s tale, then I highly recommend his 2001 book Three Cheers for Pooh, about which the publisher writes:

To commemorate Pooh's 75th anniversary, Brian Sibley has written this richly detailed yet exceedingly readable account that celebrates Just What Pooh Did! Lavishly illustrated with Ernest Shepard's full-color artwork and original sketches, as well as photographs, newspaper reports, and manuscript pages in Milne’s own handwriting, this beautifully designed book is perfect for both seasoned Pooh admirers and those eager to get better acquainted with the Best Bear in All the World—Winnie-the-Pooh.

And finally, if you don’t have a copy of the original stories by Milne (is that even possible?), then put hand to mouse and give yourself a gift in time for the holidays.

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