Across a quiet Sunday morning breakfast floats the sound of a waking toddler. Virginia remarks on the shout. Rebecca replies: ‘“I can hear him too” said Eeyore gloomily.’ At 4y11m (four years eleven months) she understood Eeyore’s typical mood and dialogue, using them to express how she herself felt.
The irrepressible Winnie-the-Pooh is 90, his first book published in 1926! AA Milne’s varied characters and subtle irony were both quite unusual in the books Rebecca and later Nicholas encountered.
They first met the Pooh stories at about 2y7m. They were familiar with Shepard’s sketches from the poems. We had a fat volume containing both Winnie- the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, with eight of Shepard’s sketches as additional coloured plates. Rebecca first heard the first chapter (‘Pooh and some bees’) then ‘Tigger having breakfast’.
Rebecca chose to ‘be’ Tigger (at 2y11m), including the complicated ‘I’m Tigger pretending to be Eeyore’. A few weeks later she was Piglet instead, identifying with him to such an extent that, when she discovered him on the back of her birthday card (meticulously drawn by John), she exclaimed joyously ‘That’s me!’ or replying to
V: Come on Becca!
R: I’m Piglet!
Despite the fact that by this age for months she had been either ‘big’ or ‘medium sized’, and was fiercely independent, she chose the small biddable Piglet as her alter ego.
Nick had a different way of working with Milne’s characters. He acted out the stories. At 2y8m, having heard ‘bees’ through for the first time, he climbed up the chair behind me, found some ‘honey’, ate some himself and then gave some to me. ‘Bees’ having been followed by the second story where Pooh gets stuck in Rabbit’s doorway, Nick acted this as well and had to be ‘pulled’ out. This difference in responses lasted throughout their young childhood, with Eeyore floating down the river on his back, being a favourite game with Nick for several years. He planned a re-enactment with Rebecca when she was 6y11m and he 3y8m, and had allocated the roles, but unfortunately it was bedtime.
N: I’m Tigger and you’re Piglet.
R: Yes, I’m Piglet.
N: No you’re Eeyore.
Having just listened to Babar the Elephant (Brunhoff) Nick was telling his uncle Rob –
N: When I grow up I’m going to be a hunter.
Rob: Do you like killing people?
N: I like guns but not killing people. Just killing attend [pretend] people. Just have a pop gun, like in Pooh. (3y7m).
Their ways of assimilating the plots were also different. Nick would query directly and quite often, as we read. For instance, when he returned to listening to Pooh read after a long gap, at 3y3m, he asked of the cover:
N: What’s his name?
N: Eeyore is a horse.
V: Well, he’s a donkey really.
When he had actually heard the story he asked of one picture –
N: Who’s that?
N: Is Tigger a lion? V: No, he’s a tiger. (Clearly the name was no clue).
He heard it again several days later, and this time, as the chapter finished he told me –
N: Probably Eeyore is a kind of horse – a toy horse.
V: I think he’s a donkey really.
We had been taking about toy characters in Muffel and Plums (Fromm) a couple of weeks before, and Nick was always interested in the real/pretend dichotomy.
On the other hand, Rebecca asked no questions until stories were completely familiar. She had to feel she had assimilated them first, then was likely to launch into the logical variety of comment. Text (Pooh): If I plant a honeycomb … then it will grow up into a beehive. R: No it won’t!
By this time she was 4y10m, and had heard all the chapters several times, and her favourite ones over and over. At this reading, as at so many others, she asked me to read the list of contents first, and chose from these. This time she also asked about the list of Coloured Illustrations (with its mystifying numbers) and the Introduction, which I explained.
Perhaps Pooh, more than any other story, was accompanied by other extraneous objects. Rebecca encountered other full-colour book versions at friends’ houses, and soft toys at well (she was most impressed with Samantha’s Eeyore) and of course could not escape the Disney version either – which her grandmother gave her on an audio tape. We also had an English audio version of The House at Pooh Corner, purchased overseas and listened to often there, when she was 4y5m, Nick 1y2m. We were disappointed to discover that even in this one cuts had been made, for instance missing out the first five pages of ‘Tiggers don’t climb trees’.
Both children and adults quoted the books extensively (‘Here is a mystery about a little fir tree’ and ‘Did he blinch? No, no’ were part of the family lexicon). When she left home at nineteen, Rebecca declared that there are two books every home should have, Alice (Carroll) and Pooh, and proceeded to source them from second hand bookshops.
Dr Virginia Lowe lives in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. She is the proprietor of Create a Kids’ Book, a manuscript assessment agency, which also runs regular workshops, interactive writing e-courses, mentorships and produces a regular free e-bulletin on writing for children and children’s literature generally. Her book, Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell (2007) is published by Routledge (978-0-4153-9724-7, £29.99 pbk).
Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, When We Were Very Young, Now We Are Six.are published by Egmont and available in a slipcase priced £35.00, 978-1405284332