Never one to shirk a worthy challenge, I decided to venture outside the usual scope of this blog and review a children’s book, one whose characters are so ubiquitous that it might seem a bit redundant—but I certainly don’t believe that. The other day Kevin from Canada had an interesting post on creating a reading legacy. There Kevin puts two dovegreyreader posts together: one on the inner child and one on the outer beauty of books. It came up that I’m a big fan of Winnie-the-Pooh and that Kevin has some story from the sixties that involves Pooh (he’s promised to share). Biased since Pooh himself is Canadian (I learned!) Kevin suggested I review Winnie-the-Pooh here. Happily.
After our marriage but some time before our first son was born, my wife gifted me A.A. Milne’s The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. Published in 1994, it compiles the two Winnie-the-Pooh books: Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).
This particular edition is beatiful. Hardcover, complete with a ribbon marker, full color original illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard (which is a must, as fun as Disney’s permutations are), it really is a great addition to a home library, espeically one intended to be passed on to the next generation. It’s a $40 book, but on Amazon.com you can get it at a steal for $25.20.
In 2006, when Winnie-the-Pooh turned 80, another beautiful edition was published to celebrate, tempting my wife and I to invest more money not just in our library but in Winnie-the-Pooh. This one, also hardback, sports a die-cut window in the dust jacket, revealing the art on the cover. Here each book is sold separately for $20, but again it’s a steal on Amazon (.com and .co.uk) with a total cost around $26. (And no, I’m getting nothing from Amazon by bringing them into this).
I don’t have these two editions yet, but we have two sons . . . why not two editions of Winnie-the-Pooh? And what am I going to do when they leave? Maybe a beautiful 100 year edition will be available then. I’ll wait. After they leave, I might never be able to read the last few stories again. It’s hard enough even while they’re young.
Both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner contain ten stories (perfect for one-a-night or even one-half-a-night routines). Included are some classics, some made popular by Disney: “In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place,” “In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One,” “In Which A House Is Built at Pooh Corner for Eeyore,” and my favorite “In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave Them There.”
Even though these are children’s stories, they fit all of my criteria for any great book. First, I am fascinated by style. As a child, I didn’t pay attention to Milne’s technique, but reading it again recently I have several times reread sentences. Milne knew what he was doing, and he obviously took this work very seriously, knowing that even though it was for children it could also communicate to adults in profound ways. To do this, Milne adopts a very simple-sounding prose style, but digging into the construction, Milne’s diction and syntax are far from natural. Yet it flows, and it is perfect. Furthermore, Milne somehow creates a range of distinct voices for all of the characters, and reading them interact with each other is much of the fun. For example, Winnie-the-Pooh’s roundabout, humble, self-doubting without being self-depracating way of speaking is inimitable. We get a sense of this in the introductory paragraph:
Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.
As I’m sure you know, Milne’s characters are each unique and skillfully drawn out over the short stories as they interact. My favorite relationship in the book, the one that resonated the most, is between Pooh and Piglet. Through these two characters Milne shows what it is like to truly love someone exactly as they are. There is confidence in the relationship and joy in mere presence, and in simple sentences Milne portrays a full set of emotions I’ve never been able to put into words.
“I wonder what Piglet is doing,” thought Pooh.
“I wish I were there to be doing it, too.”
As I said, Milne’s sense for sentence construction is superb and on display here. He could have said—and most would—”I wish I were there doing it too.” But the inclusion of “to be” changes the feel, makes Pooh a bit more unique while showing his care for Piglet. Furthermore, read out loud, it is very pleasant in its rhythm and rhyme. It manages, while skirting the line of formal English, to come off child-like but not childish. I’m not sure I’m capable of explaining why, but that’s how it feels to me.
Also a book, to be great, has to touch on larger themes without shoving them in your face as is all too common in contemporary fiction. Milne succeeds. In Pooh, as in life, things like friendship, life, death, etc., are omnipresent, yet somewhat just outside our thoughts most of the time. Without knowing what’s happening, we feel them, and they find a way to influence the quotidian. Simple events, while allowed to remain simple, represent some of the most profound elements of life. To me this is particularly present as Christopher Robin slowly ceases to be a strong presence in the narrative. One day, there’s a sign on Christopher Robin’s door saying he’s gone to school, be back soon. Innocent at first, but we all know where this is going.
Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world, with his chin in his hands, called out “Pooh!”
“Yes?” said Pooh.
“Yes, Christopher Robin?”
“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”
“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”
Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.
“Yes, Christopher Robin?” said Pooh helpfully.
“Pooh, when I’m—you know—when I’m not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?”
“Will you be here too?”
To continue on DGR and KFC’s ideas then, here is my contribution to bringing out the inner child. Turns out it’s much more than that.
Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh,” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw, “I just wanted to be sure of you.”