Review of the Day: Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick
What is it with bears and WWI? Aw, heck. Let’s expand that question a tad. What is it with adorable animals and WWI? Seems these days no matter where you turn you find a new book commemorating a noble creature’s splendor and sacrifice on the battlefields of Europe. If it’s not Midnight, A True Story of Loyalty in World War I by Mark Greenwood or Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of WWI’s Bravest Dog by Ann Bausum, it’s Voytek, the Polish munitions bear in Soldier Bear or, best known of them all, the inspiration for Winnie-the-Pooh. With the anniversary of WWI here, the children’s literary sphere has witnessed not one but two picture book biographies of Winnie, the real bear that inspired Christopher Robin Milne and, in turn, his father A.A. Milne. The first of these books was Winnie: The True Story of the Bear That Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker. A good strong book, no bones about it. But Finding Winnie has an advantage over the Walker bio that cannot be denied. One book was researched and thought through carefully. The other? Written by one of the descendants of the veterinarian that started it all. Add in the luminous artwork of Sophie Blackall and you’ve got yourself a historical winner on your hands.
Now put yourself in Harry’s shoes. You’re suited up. You’re on a train. You’re headed to training for the Western Front where you’ll be a service vet, aiding the horses there. The last thing you should do is buy a baby bear cub at a train station, right? I suppose that was the crazy thing about Harry, though. As a vet he had the skills and the knowledge to make his plan work. And as for the bear, she was named Winnipeg (or just Winnie for short), and she instantly charmed Harry’s commanding officer and all his fellow soldiers. During training she was great for morale, and before you knew it she was off with the troop overseas. But with the threat of real combat looming, Harry had a difficult decision to make. This little bear wasn’t suited for the true horrors of war. Instead, he dropped her off at The London Zoo where she proceeded to charm adults and children alike. That was where she made the acquaintance of Christopher Robin Milne and inspired the name of the world’s most famous stuffed animal. Framed within the context of author Lindsay Mattick telling this story to her son Cole, Ms. Mattick deftly weaves a family story in with a tale some might know but few quite like this.
Right from the start I was intrigued by the book’s framing sequence. Here we have a bit of nonfiction for kids, and yet all throughout the book we’re hearing Cole interjecting his comments as his mother tells him this story. It’s a unique way of presenting what is already an interesting narrative in a particularly child-friendly manner. But why do it at all? What I kept coming back to as I read the book was how much it made the story feel like A.A. Milne’s. Anyone who has attempted to read the first Winnie-the-Pooh book to their small children will perhaps be a bit surprised by the extent to which Christopher Robin’s voice keeps popping up, adding his own color commentary to the proceedings. Cole’s voice does much the same thing, and once I realized that Mattick was playing off of Milne’s classic, other Winnie-the-Pooh callbacks caught my eye. There’s the Colonel’s surprised “Hallo” when he first meets Winnie, which struck me as a particularly Pooh-like thing to say. There are the comments between Harry’s heart and head which reminded me, anyway, of Pooh’s conversations with his stomach. They are not what I would call overt callbacks but rather like subtle little points of reference for folks who are already fans.
I was struck my Mattick’s attention to accuracy and detail too. The temptation in these sorts of books is to fill them up with fake dialogue. One might well imagine that the conversation with Cole is based on actual conversations, possibly culled together from a variety of different accounts. Since Mattick isn’t saying this-happened-like-this-on-precisely-this-date we can enjoy it for what it is. As for Harry’s tale, you only occasionally get a peek into his brain and when you do it’s in his own words, clearly taken from written accounts. Mattick does not divulge these accounts, sadly, so there’s nothing in the back of the book so useful as a Bibliography. However, that aside, the book rings true. So much so that it almost makes me doubt other accounts I’ve read.
As for the text itself, I was mildly surprised by how good the writing was. Mattick makes some choices that protect the young readers while keeping the text accurate. For example, when little Cole asks what trappers, like the one who killed Winnie’s mother, do, Lindsay’s answer is to say, “It’s what trappers don’t do. They don’t raise bears.” Hence, Harry had to buy it. She also has a nice little technique, which I alluded to earlier, where Harry’s heart and mind are at odds. The heart allows him to buy Winnie and take her overseas. The mind wins in terms of taking her to The London Zoo in the end.
I like to put myself in the place of the editor of this book. The manuscript has come in. I like it. I want to publish it. I get the thumbs up from my publisher to go ahead and then comes the part where I find an illustrator for it. I want somebody who can emote. Someone just as adept at furry baby bear cubs as they are soldiers in khaki with teeny tiny glasses. But maybe I want something more. Maybe I want an illustrator who puts in the rudimentary details, then adds their own distinctive style to the mix. I’m willing to get an artist who could potentially overshadow the narrative with visual beauty. In short, I want a Sophie Blackall.
Now I’ve heard Ms. Blackall speak on a couple occasions about the meticulous research she conducted for this book. The Canadian flag she initially mistakenly placed on a ship of war has been amended from an earlier draft (the Canadian flag wasn’t officially adopted until 1965). She researched The London Zoo for an aerial shot that includes everything from the squirrel enclosure to Winnie’s small block of concrete or stone. Blackall also includes little visual details that reward multiple readings. A scene where Harry departs on the train, surrounded by people saying goodbye, is contrasted by a later scene where he returns and far fewer people are saying hello to their loved ones. One soldier has lost a leg. Another greets his much larger son and perpetually handkerchief clutching wife. Another doesn’t appear at all. And finally, Blackall throws in beautiful two-page spreads for the sake of beauty alone. The initial endpapers show an idyllic woodland scene, presumably in Canada. Later we’ve this red sky scene of the ship proceeding across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. For a book about WWI, that red is the closest we come (aside from the aforementioned missing leg) to an allusion to the bloody conflict happening elsewhere. It’s beautiful and frightening all at once.
In the world of children’s literature you never get a single book on the subject and then say, “There! Done! We don’t need any more!” It doesn’t matter how great a book is, there’s always room for another. And it seems to me that on the topic of Winnie the bear, friend of Christopher Robin, inspiration to a platoon, there is plenty of wiggle room. Hers is a near obscure tale that is rapidly becoming better and better known each day. I think that this pairs magnificently with Walker’s Winnie. For bear enthusiasts, Winnie enthusiasts, history lovers, and just plain old folks who like a good story. In short, for silly old bears.
On shelves October 20th.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Journey That Saved Curious George by Louise Borden
- Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of WWI’s Bravest Dog by Ann Bausum
- Christian, the Hugging Lion by Justin Richardson
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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