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.

penguin-character

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.

Notable Replies

  1. I occasionally allow Winnie The Pooh references into my standard vocabulary at work, and am far-too-often left aghast at how many people have no idea what I'm talking about. It turns out that even here in the UK, not everybody has absorbed every single glorious written word of it into their very souls. And I do mean written word, not animated scene. (Disney's animated version has charm, but nowhere near as much as Sheppards illustrations, and far, far less than the text upon which it was all based.) Like the Jeeves novels - the other great and sadly under-read work of gentle English perfection from these isles - the true wonder of the Winnie The Pooh stories lies not just in the brilliant characters and their phrases, but how they and their world are described with such apparently simple delight.

    For this reason, I do recommend that anyone who hasn't heard them before hunt down Alan Bennett's recordings of the novels, which must have been done back in the 1970s or 80s. You can't read the words and look at the pictures when you're driving with your family, but those recordings are a Good Way of getting those words into your head, and guarantee you will all arrive smiling.

  2. Enkita says:

    I think A A Milne did know what he had achieved.

    Dorothy Parker didn't get it at all and after reading Now We Are Six, the follow on to Pooh, she reported that she "fwowed up". Which showed she had had a sidecar too many because Milne never uses baby talk. Quite the reverse.
    Both Pooh and NWAS are gently derisive at pompousness and authority figures, in a good way.

  3. Ratel says:

    "Pooh, promise you won't forget about me, ever. Not even when I'm a hundred."

    Pooh thought for a little. "How old shall I be then?"

    "Ninety-nine."

  4. A couple of years ago I went back and re-read the original stories and was amazed and delighted to find some subtle but profound lessons in them. In her book Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature Alison Lurie touches on the undercurrents of Pooh but she doesn't get nearly deep enough. Pooh is a major risk-taker, Owl, supposedly wise, isn't all that smart, Rabbit kidnaps Roo because he thinks there's something suspicious about these newcomers--although it ends up really just being a ruse to get to know Kanga better--and when Eeyore loses his house and is left freezing in the snow he shrugs it off and says "we haven't had an earthquake lately."

    I love the idea of introducing a new character too since that echoes something I think is at the heart of the original stories: a diverse group of characters all living together.

  5. After watching one of the more recent Disney Pooh movies, a friend of mine commented that they'd made the Hundred Acre Wood into a bunch of very stupid grumpy old men trying to cater to a honey-addicted mentally deficient bear while Kanga and Roo try to keep things together.

    The one really charming new character Disney added to the Pooh pantheon was Lumpy, the young Heffalump, who gave Roo a chance to have his own storylines outside of the forest of confused old men.

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