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Winnie-the-pooh turns 75

Classic book's characters is still charming readers young and old

Wednesday, October 10, 2001

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One day in August 1921, Daphne Milne went to Harrods, the famous London department store, to select a gift for her son's first birthday. After some deliberation, she chose a stuffed bear. Made of golden mohair, he was a sturdy fellow with a prominent black nose, shining glass eyes, and movable arms and legs.

The bear was an instant hit. Christopher Robin quickly became inseparable from his bear, naming him Winnie-the-Pooh and endowing him with human thoughts and feelings that often echoed his own.

Several years later, this special relationship was immortalized when Christopher Robin's father, writer A.A. Milne, published "Winnie-the-Pooh" on Oct. 14, 1926.

Now, as this classic book celebrates its 75th birthday, it's clear that the bear that once was simply a playfellow for a lonely only child is firmly ensconced as one of the most beloved characters in children's literature.

Much of Pooh's enduring popularity is due to A.A. Milne's deft, lighthearted writing in "Winnie-the-Pooh" and its sequel, "The House at Pooh Corner," published in 1928. Generations of readers around the world have been won over by Milne's ability to create characters that touch the hearts of children and adults, as well as the charming line drawings by E.H. Shepard.

Of the hundreds of children's books published in 1926, only five -- including "Winnie-the-Pooh" -- have stayed in print since then, noted Anita Silvey, author of "Children's Books and Their Creators."

"For a novel to stay in print for children for 75 years is simply extraordinary. Only the 'rarest kind of best' do," Silvey said, referring to a quote by Walter de la Mare that "only the rarest kind of best is good enough for the young."

The other four books are: "Dr. Doolittle's Caravan" by Hugh Lofting, "Smoky the Cowhorse" by Will James, "Bambi" by Felix Salten and "Abe Lincoln Grows Up" by Carl Sandburg.

 
 

A few fun facts about Winnie-the-Pooh and friends

Special books mark Pooh anniversary

   
 

Silvey noted that one reason for the abiding success of "Winnie-the-Pooh" is that Milne's characters are "so true to life. I have had people in my life that I refer to as 'Eyeores,' and other people know just what I am talking about.

"There's also the brilliant facility of Milne's language and the felicitous collaboration of author and artist," Silvey added. "What isn't there in the text is there in the art. They really play off of each other."

Unfortunately for Pooh purists, however, part of the lasting fame of Milne's "silly old Bear" must be attributed to the Walt Disney Studios. Disney himself bought the rights to the bear and his friends in the 1960s. In the pantheon of Disney animated characters, Pooh is second only to Mickey Mouse in popularity.

The Disney Pooh is rounder, more golden and -- some think -- far less interesting than his Milne-Shepard counterpart.

But the Disney Pooh, star of several animated movies, numerous videos and a TV series, has proved highly marketable. He and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood have inspired a host of commercial products from toys to linens to clothes to furniture. There also is a separate smaller line of products, also licensed by Disney, that relies on the Shepard images of Pooh and his friends.

While "Winnie-the-Pooh" and "The House at Pooh Corner" brought riches and fame to the Milne family, the books also brought pain.

Christopher Milne spent much of his adult life attempting to come to terms with the portrait of himself in the "Pooh" books. Father and son, so close during Christopher's childhood, drifted apart. By the time he died in 1996, however, Christopher Milne had vented his feelings in four elegantly written autobiographical volumes and finally had found peace in his life.

A.A. Milne also came to resent his tales about the "Bear of Little Brain." For Milne, the books represented a small part of his vast literary output over the years, most of it for adults. Of all of Milne's writing, however, it is the "Pooh" books for which he will be remembered.

All of this, however, is a long way from the day in December 1925 when Milne, desperately casting about for an idea for a newspaper Christmas story, was inspired to write about his son's beloved bear.

Milne had already written about Pooh in a poem titled "Teddy Bear." It was among the many rhymes in "When We Were Very Young," Milne's first book for children. Published in 1924, it was immediately popular with critics and readers, who clamored for more children's books from Milne.

Milne's first story about Pooh was published to great fanfare in the Dec. 24, 1925, edition of the London Evening News.

Milne introduces Pooh as he is "coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin." In that first story, Milne mixes conversations with Christopher Robin with a tale of the hapless Pooh's efforts to steal honey from some bees.

At the end, Milne promises Christopher Robin that there will be other tales "about Piglet and Rabbit and all of you." And so Milne spent much of the next year writing nine more stories, filled with "woozles," "heffalumps" and an "expotition" to the North Pole.

The stories are set in the woods surrounding Cotchford Farm, the Milne family's country residence. Shepard visited there in that spring, sketching the toys and the woods as Milne completed the stories.

Finally, on Oct. 14, 1926, "Winnie-the-Pooh" was published in London. Like today's "Harry Potter" books, "Winnie-the-Pooh" owed much of its initial popularity to adults, who delighted in reading Milne's witty wordplay and viewing Shepard's depiction of a simpler time of life.

A year later, Milne published another book of children's verse, "Now We Are Six." Then, in 1928, "The House at Pooh Corner" was published, again to great acclaim. As he wrote "The House at Pooh Corner," however, Milne came to a momentous decision: There would be no more "Pooh" books. Christopher Robin was growing up and thinking of school and other things far beyond the nursery world of his stuffed playmates.

Milne spent the next 30 years writing plays, poetry and other literary entertainment for adults. Yet he could never shake off Pooh's rotund shadow, something that made him increasingly bitter. He died Jan. 31, 1956.

"The gifts you have are sometimes not the gifts you want to have," Silvey said. "That's probably the case with Milne."

While there will be no more "Pooh" books, Milne ensured that the world in which the bear and his friends live will never end. As he writes at the end of "The House At Pooh Corner": "...wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing."

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