The world’s most famous toys are missing from their climate-controlled case in the New York Public Library. No, Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends are not on an “Expotition,” but they’re being carefully conserved off-site. The plush nonagenarians will return in the coming months, but of course, the best place to find them has always been their original stomping grounds: two slim volumes entitled “Winnie-the-Pooh” (1926) and “The House at Pooh Corner” (1928), by A.A. Milne.
Garden historian Kathryn Aalto marks next year’s 90th anniversary of the first title with a lively exploration of the books’ iconic landscape and its connection to the fields and forest that surrounded Milne’s home, Cotchford Farm in England, where his son, Christopher Robin, played with stuffed animals.
Alan Alexander Milne, a successful writer, playwright and editor at the humor magazine Punch, bought the home in 1925, and over the years he and his wife and only child enjoyed long weekends and holidays there, a respite from Milne’s busy life in London. Milne hoped to give his son an outdoorsy childhood similar to his own in the English village of Hampstead. Young Christopher Robin found trees to climb in nearby Ashdown Forest and places to adventure with his playthings Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Tigger. (The books’ other characters, Owl and Rabbit, most likely derive from the area’s native fauna.)
Milne, in turn, found inspiration for the two children’s books that were to eclipse his entire literary output, a source of frustration in later years for the prolific writer. No matter Dorothy Parker’s acerbic review — “Tonstant Weader fwowed up” — in the New Yorker, the Pooh books became popular immediately. To date, they have sold about 20 million copies and been translated into more than 50 languages. There have been Disney film adaptations, related merchandise, critical spoofs by Frederick Crews and a disappointing authorized sequel, “Return to the Hundred Acre Wood,” in 2009.
Aalto goes back to the source: the creators, muses and settings. From the beginning, Milne recognized illustrator Ernest H. Shepard as an important contributor. The Punch cartoonist visited Cotchford Farm and sketched the Scots pines, heath and toys that he later rendered in ink, pen and black crayon. The only deviation was his use of his own son’s stuffed bear, Growler, as the model for Pooh. Milne was so pleased with the drawings that he insisted that Shepard receive a share of royalties, rather than the more usual, for the time, flat fee per illustration.
Shepard’s art punctuates Aalto’s genial, knowledgeable text, and the generous use of period and full-color contemporary photos immerses readers in literary history and a living landscape. In addition to familiar haunts — Poohsticks Bridge, the Hundred Acre Wood — Aalto attends to the natural and social history of the area. Once marked as royal hunting ground by William the Conqueror and much later described as “villainously ugly” by an English journalist, the woodlands and heaths of Ashdown Forest are now a protected habitat for the rare nightjar and Dartford warbler as well as the damselflies, butterflies, bees and violets depicted in the books. The gorse-bushes that once pricked Pooh still flourish.
As he grew, Christopher Robin’s relationship to the books and the father who made him famous became more fraught, and he struggled to break free of the public’s fixation on his young bob-haired self. Aalto never ventures into this darker territory. She references the first memoir, “The Enchanted Places,” by Christopher Milne (he preferred “Christopher” as an adult), but not those later, squeeze-your-heart memoirs in which hecontinued to reflect on his shyness and the long shadow cast by his gentle father.
Acknowledging these shadows would have deepened rather than distracted from Aalto’s sunny portrait. After all, it is the dark edges that often provide the emotional shading to the great children’s classics: death in E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” fearful vigilance in Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers.” In the England of Milne’s time, boys of a certain class could expect to leave their families for boarding school at age 10 or so, perhaps before many were emotionally ready for such a separation. Milne had been thrust from his own Edenic childhood, and he knew this fate awaited his sensitive son. At the end of “The House at Pooh Corner,” this awareness hangs over the Pooh universe, a place where tolerance and kindness prevail, and where a child might enjoy unstructured time “doing Nothing.” The Christopher Robin character looks out at the larger world and turns back to his toy bear and asks for understanding and more time to play.
Aalto’s lovely book provides two great pleasures: a visit to the actual wild spots that inform the fictional Pooh world and a chance to slip into our memories of the books themselves.
Mary Quattlebaum is a children’s author and regular reviewer for The Washington Post. She teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
By Kathryn Aalto
Timber. 308 pp. $24.95