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Review of the Day – Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh
By Sally M. Walker
Illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss
Henry Holt (an imprint of Macmillan)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0805097153
Ages 4-7
On shelves now

I worked in close proximity to the real Winnie-the-Pooh for five years. From 2006 to 2011 he was a daily delight. To clarify, I was working alongside the original Winnie-the-Pooh toys owned by the real Christopher Robin, son of A.A. Milne in New York Public Library’s Central Children’s Room. We had Piglet, Tigger, Kanga (no Roo), Eeyore, and Winnie himself. Though ironically I never read his books as a child, in my time as a children’s librarian working in the Children’s Center at 42nd Street I became well versed in his story. Winnie was purchased at Harrods for Christopher Robin who eventually named him “Winnie” after some bear he’d seen in a zoo. If pressed to conjure up facts about that zoo bear I might have been able to tell you that its name was Winnipeg, but that was about as far as my knowledge on the matter went. Sometimes it takes a children’s book to learn about a children’s book character. Winnie: The True Story of the Bear That Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh relates the true history of a man and his bear. Illustrated with aplomb by Jonathan D. Voss, the book’s charm is the true measure by which you can assess how well it lives up to its namesake. Accuracy and adorableness in one small, furry package.

There are many things Harry Colebourn could have purchased as his troop passed through the small train station, but what did he end up with? A baby bear. A baby black bear, if you want to be precise about it. Good natured and orphaned, Harry promptly names her “Winnie” after his company’s hometown “Winnipeg” and she becomes the darling of his troop. When WWI calls his company across the wide ocean, Winnie comes along. But killing fields are no place for a baby bear so it’s to the London Zoo that Winnie goes. Once there, Harry promises her that when the war is done he’ll take her back to Winnipeg. It’s a promise he doesn’t keep. Upon his return Harry sees that Winnie is not only happy but a star of the zoo. She’s so gentle that children everywhere come to see her. Even a boy by the name of Christopher Robin . . . Copious photographs of the real Winnie and Harry grace the front endpapers while Christopher Robin graces the back. There is an additional Author’s Note on Harry, Winnie, and black bears as well as a Bibliography of sources.

As I began reading the book I wondered if the story of Winnie would be akin to other military animal tales out there. Would Winnie aid the Allies much in the same way as Voytek in Poland or was she more of a mascot like Stubby? Neither, as it happens. Though Winnie did make it onto a boat headed for France, her keeper was smart enough to recognize that while some bears would thrive in a war zone (see: Voytek), Winnie was not one of them. Really she was just a baby and after seeing her playing and cuddling with Harry the thought of her existing in a place where bullets would fly is terrifying. This is a sweet wartime tale, perfect for reading to younger children who take things on face value and aren’t aware of what WWI really entailed.

The art of Jonathan D. Voss caught me by surprise. With just a half glance at the cover I initially though the illustrator was Amy June Bates (who illustrated the somewhat similar Christian, the Hugging Lion back in 2010). An understandable mistake but once I actually went so far as to, oh I dunno LOOK at the book, I could see that Voss has a crisper line as well as a sure and steady grasp on the material. This being the first picture book that he has illustrated, he does a good job of making some really iconic images. The view on the cover of Harry hugging Winnie to his chest, as one might cuddle an infant, is downright heartwarming. Likewise the image of Winnie asleep under Harry’s cot as his long arm drapes down, his wrist bending in sleep, works. And if the four shots of Harry playing with Winnie were a YouTube video they’d get more hits than any other cute animal video to date. There is the occasional misstep, I’m afraid. A boy riding Winnie later in the book bears the slack-jawed look of a very small grown man and not a little boy. Indeed Voss appears to be most comfortable when Winnie is his focus. There’s not a single image where that bear doesn’t feel 100% authentic. One suspects the artist spent a great deal of time studying baby black bears and how they move. He also does a decent job of rendering the stuffed Pooh accurately. The arms are admittedly a bit long but the stance and nose are on target.

One objection I’ve heard to the story is that there isn’t enough Christopher Robin / real Winnie-the-Pooh info included in this story. I can see where this critic is coming from but I respectfully disagree. To my mind, Winnie’s story is fascinating in and of itself regardless of what famous literary character she ended up inspiring on some level. Hers is a story of tragedy turned to great good luck. Few orphaned bears in the WWI era would have found such a caring owner, let alone one that let them travel to Europe. Her life was notable at the time and makes for no less an interesting story today.

For my part, the book gets into tricky territory when we view the quoted dialog. Now Ms. Walker is a known entity. She does this stuff for a living. Wins big nonfiction awards like the Sibert for Secrets of a Civil War Submarine and the like. So when we get to a section where Harry is quoted saying “I’ll feed her condensed milk. She can stay with me in camp. Winnipeg can be our mascot,” then we have to naturally assume that the quote comes from one of the listed sources Walker provides at the back of the book. The quotes are not sourced but since Harry’s diary is one of those aforementioned sources, there’s a strong likelihood that the quotes come from there. I’m giving the book the benefit of the doubt in this matter, since faux dialog is the bane of the modern nonfiction picture book.

Read this book and few will wonder that after seeing Winnie in person, Christopher Robin wanted a bear of his very own. Indeed, the vast majority of children who are read Winnie may think to themselves (or say out loud) at some point, “When do I get my own?” Sorry, kids. If it’s any consolation you can see the Winnie-the-Pooh toys in the main New York Public Library location anytime the building is open. Maybe it won’t be the same as getting to ride a sweet bear in the zoo, but it’s still a part of this story on some level. Cute, not saccharine, and pleasing to boot, this is one story-behind-the-story kids will definitely appreciate. Lovers of Pooh welcome but not required.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Interviews: Julie Danielson interviews Sally M. Walker about the book over at BookPage.

Misc: For more interior illustrated spreads, go to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Video: Forgot a movie was made out of this story as well, didn’t you?  You’re forgiven.  It came out in 2004 and was made for TV after all.  That said, it had some big name cast members.  Michael Fassbender starred.  Stephen Fry shows up.  David Suchet. And someone put the whole thing up on YouTube so if you’ve an hour and a half to kill . . .

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth 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.

Comments

  1. This is definitely a book I think a lot of people would be interested in. I know I am! :) Thank you for pointing it out!

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  1. […] those younger who are interested in a true story set during World War I, should check out Winnie: The Remarkable Tale of a Real Bear (2015) by Sally M. Walker and illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss. It not only about a bear called […]