This is, in my humble opinion, the best children’s book ever written. Detractors may be right in saying that this is because I am a white, middle-aged, male Brit who is nostalgic about the English countryside and his own childhood, but a close look at the text and the wonderfully characterful illustrations (E.H. Shepard’s – no-one else’s) will reveal a book that is beautifully written in a uniquely distinctive voice, with great characters, simple story lines, infused with sparkling humour and philosophical ideas that can influence how you live the rest of your life.
A.A. Milne was already a well-known and successful dramatist and novelist before he wrote these stories for his son Christopher Robin and the toys in his nursery. He knew what his publishers wanted, but decided to write these anyway: he was a writer who didn’t like to be told what to do.
I won’t regurgitate what you can already find about about A.A. Milne and the Pooh books elsewhere; what you won’t find out there is what these stories mean to this particular reader. Winnie-the-Pooh (the first book) and The House at Pooh Corner were among the first books I bought with my own money. It was sometime in the 70s and the Puffin Club delivered a thin catalogue of available books to my small rural school in deepest Surrey. I ticked the boxes and enclosed 40p, and when the books arrived two weeks later I experienced for the first time that thrill of owning a new book. I guess I was about 9. My mum probably read most of them to me, but I also remember reading them to her. One time I remember clearly was when we were driving along the winding country roads to Swimming Club. I was reading about Pooh climbing a tree to reach the honey at the top. The description of Pooh falling and bouncing through the branches on the way down had me doubled up in hysterics and my mum was laughing so much she had to stop the car.
Much later I read the stories to my own children and to children in my classes. Being close to the area where Milne lived – the Ashdown Forest in Sussex – we also went there to see Pooh Bridge for ourselves. Here Pooh invented the game of Poohsticks. Thousands of people visit the bridge every year and it’s best to take your own sticks: you won’t find one within half a mile of the bridge itself.
These books fall into an unfortunate gap for modern young readers. The text is quite complex, so you have to be between 9 and 11 to be able to read it comfortably on your own; but children of this age today regard the content as ‘too childish’, and don’t want to be seen with it in public. This is a great shame, because once you get started you realise that these stories are hugely entertaining and rewarding at any age. The best thing is to read them to young children – the rhythm of the language and the voices you can use make them ideal for reading aloud. Read them to your children before they think they’re too old for stories about bears and honey. As a teacher, I also have a captive audience, and I’ve read these stories to 10- and 11-year-olds. The writing soon captivates them and they are hooked and clutching their sides, forgetting for a while that they are ‘much too old’ for this kind of stuff.
If reading aloud is a daunting prospect, there are many audio versions, but the best by far is Alan Bennett’s recording for the BBC. I don’t know what voice Milne had in mind for Pooh, but Bennett’s Yorkshire accent is perfect for the ponderous bear and it is his voice I hear now when I read them again. My boys played the tape on a loop at bedtime for years and I hope that they too will nurture a deep love of these stories as they get older.