Top 100 Children's Novels #26: Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
#26 Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (1926)
Time to scrub our minds of Disney and go back to the original. Yes, I was a proud member of a student initiated “A.A. Milne Society” in college. – Aaron Zenz
This book has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I remember my mother reading it to me. Later, I read it to my little brothers and sisters. In college, I learned how much fun a group reading of Winnie-the-Pooh can be, with different people taking different voices. And I brainwashed my sons into liking this book so much, both of them chose Pooh characters as the very first characters they pretended to be. In fact, my youngest learned to write his own name, P-O-O-H. However, when he called me in the night, “Piiiglet!” I thought he had gone too far. One of the great things about this book is that it reads on different levels. I remember as a child taking the things said as perfectly reasonable and matter-of-fact that now I think are hilarious. This book is a work of genius. – Sondra Eklund
There is no point in life when this book isn’t funny and touching and perfect. – Nicole Johnston Wroblewski
Well. There he is. Pooh bear. My co-worker. And though he came close to cracking the top 20, it’s at #26 where he remains. That’s okay. Some of you may recall that I used to work in the Children’s Center at 42nd Street for New York Public Library. My old reference desk also sits mere feet away from the original Winnie-the-Pooh toys. Which is to say, the toys owned by Christopher Robin Milne that helped inspire his father A.A. Milne to write the books in the first place. Not too shabby, eh? They are also excellent company. Couldn’t be sweeter. Read Jenny Boylan’s touching memory of the toys here if you’ve a moment to do so.
The plot description from Barnes and Noble (forgive me) reads, “Here’s where Pooh’s adventures all began. Published in 1926, this is the original Winnie-the-Pooh with illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. Beginning with ‘Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees,’ here are ten classic tales featuring the whole gang: Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga, Little Roo, and Christopher Robin. Remember when Pooh visits Rabbit and ‘gets into a tight place’ as he attempts to enter Rabbit’s house? Remember Eeyore’s very eventful birthday party? Piglet’s water-filled rescue? The beloved stories are all here, as A.A. Milne wrote them more than 70 years ago.”
The Reference Guide to Children’s Literature describes the creation of the first book in this way: “The first Winnie-the-Pooh story was written in December 1925 in response to a request to Milne from the Evening News to write a story for their Christmas number. Milne was asked as the famous author of the bestselling book of poems When We Were Very Young. He found it difficult to comply with the request. His wife suggested he should write down one of the bedtime stories he told his son—but Milne said they were ‘a completely contemptible mix-up.’ Nameless knights and indistinguishable princesses did the usual sort of things. There was just one story that was a bit different—a story about the child’s own toy bear, who already possessed the odd name of Winnie-the-Pooh, though he would also go under the name, not only of Sanders, but of Edward Bear. (It was as Edward Bear or Teddy that he had made his first appearance in When We Were Very Young.) Milne’s story about the bear and a balloon and some bees duly appeared in the Evening News and eventually became the first chapter of the book.”
That’s one story. I rather like Anita Silvey’s mention in 100 Best Books for Children of Mrs. Milne’s hand in the books as well, though. Referring to the original Pooh toys she writes, “Like children everywhere, Christopher made up stories about these animals; his mother joined in, giving each character a distinct voice.”
When the books were released there was equal parts loving and loathing. The most infamous critic of the book was, of course, Dorothy Parker. In her review in The New Yorker she was beautifully scathing. Even if you love the Pooh tomes, it’s hard not to be amused by her lines “It is that word ‘hunny,’ my darlings that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.” Some forward thinking blogger should someday name their site “Tonstant Weader”. Or make it their band name. That would work. I would see that band.
Another person who wasn’t a fan of the books? Christopher Robin himself. In Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Christopher is quoted as saying that, “If the Pooh books had been like most other books–published one year, forgotten the next–there would have been no problem. Unfortunately the fictional Christopher Robin refused to die and he and his real-life namesake were not always on the best of terms. For the first misfortune (as it sometimes seemed) my father was to blame. The second was my fault.” Weirder still? Milne didn’t read the books to his son. Maybe that would have changed Chris’s opinion. But according to Twentieth-Century British Humorists, “Milne never read his stories and poems to his son Christopher, preferring rather to amuse him with the works of P. G. Wodehouse, one of Milne’s favorite authors.”
From Contemporary Authors Online, one writer in particular was inspired by the book. “[Bruce Coville] was introduced to the possibilities of writing for children by the woman who would later become his mother-in-law. He remembered that she ‘gave me a copy of Winnie the Pooh to read, and I suddenly knew that what I really wanted to write was children’s books–to give to other children the joy that I got from books when I was young. This is the key to what I write now. I try, with greater or lesser success, to make my stories the kinds of things that I would have enjoyed myself when I was young; to write the books I wanted to read, but never found. My writing works best when I remember the bookish child who adored reading and gear the work toward him. It falters when I forget him’.”
In 1976 Alison Lurie provided a rather brilliant explanation in the New York Times as to why Pooh’s world remains as beloved as it is: “One day, Christopher Robin is discovered to be missing from the Forest. He has gone to school for the first time and is learning his alphabet, beginning with the letter A. Eeyore comes across this letter A, arranged on the ground out of three sticks, and walks slowly around it: ‘Clever!’ said Eeyore scornfully…. ‘Education!’ said Eeyore bitterly.’ He is right to be bitter. It is Education that will, by the end of ‘ The House at Pooh Corner,’ have driven Christopher out of his self-created Eden. No wonder many readers weep when they read the last chapter of this book. They know that they too have lost their childhood paradise. That is why, I think, they are so grateful to A. A. Milne, who managed to preserve one such world for generations past and those to come.”
The Disneyfication of Pooh has led to him becoming their second highest grossing character for that particular entertainment company (number one being, of course, Mickey Mouse). Many Pooh purists dislike these continual adaptations on the part of Disney so it is interesting to note that in 1966, after the release of the first Disney film, The New York Times raved about it. Honest, they did! Said they, “The Disney technicians responsible for this beguiling miniature have had the wisdom to dip right into the Milne pages. … Using the simple, priceless illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard, and expanding them into soft pastel backgrounds the picture sets Pooh [and] his playmates … frolicking. The flavoring, with some nice tunes stirred in, is exactly right–wistful, sprightly and often hilarious.”
Disney is hardly the sole appropriator of Pooh, of course. The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff came out in 1982, and sold better than anyone could have EVER imagined. And in 1999 there was Now We Are Sixty by Christopher Matthew too. Most recently David Benedictus wrote the first official sequel (read: sequel sanctioned by the estate of Pooh) called Return to the Hundred Acre Woods. It’s just proof that while there may be Disney Poohs out there by the millions, much of the time folks like to return to their old friend.
Nothing against Shepard, but I’ve always had a great deal of love for the Russian version of Winnie-the-Pooh. He’s just so roly-poly!
Speaking of the Russian version of Winnie (or Vinni, rather) you can find many fine samples of his adventures on YouTube these days. These films are from the 70s. Quite frankly, they charm me. Utterly.
Now if you know your history then you know that the name of Winnie-the-Pooh came partly from a famous bear cub in Canada called Winnie (short for Winnipeg). Yup. There’s even a statue of it. And that story has, in turn, become its own movie.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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