Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (written by A.A. Milne, illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard) fall into the category of Genuine Children’s Classics. The characters, the incidents, even some of the phrases (“Oh, bother”) have seeped into our common culture. Unfortunately, that cultural seepage means that, when I pull out Winnie the Pooh to read to my class, there are sometimes groans and mutterings about “baby books.” You see, many children have spent their childhood surrounded by the Winnie the Pooh empire – with Pooh characters popping up everywhere from cartoons to diaper decorations – without ever experiencing the stories themselves.
Once children actually read the stories, they’re almost always amazed at how truly funny they are (“in a way little kids wouldn’t understand,” I usually explain). The use of language, the situations, and the tone are all much more appealing to children over the age of nine than the younger children who usually know the characters.
If you have managed to sneak the original Pooh stories past an older child’s defenses and are looking for a more modern follow-up, or if you’d like a way to lead up to those classics, my recommendation is the similarly funny Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic (written by Emily Jenkins, pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky). Its self-contained but interconnected stories (with titles like “The Terrifying Bigness of the Washing Machine” and “The Serious Problem of Plastic-ness”) and sweet illustrations make it a perfect read-aloud, either for a class or a family at bedtime.
There are a few parallels between the two books that make me wonder if Jenkins was specifically thinking of the Pooh stories. In one story Lumphy the buffalo loses “something important” from his body in a way that would be familiar to Eeyore. In another chapter, the characters search for a perfect birthday present, much like Pooh’s gift to Eeyore of a Useful Pot to Put Things In (and Piglet’s thoughtful Thing to Put in a Useful Pot). There are some very Milne-like “hums” throughout the story that brought to mind both the Pooh stories and Milne’s poetry. Both authors also share a love of language (see for example StingRay’s explanation of the term for whispering suggestions in someone’s ear: “Oooooh! Submarine messages! … Why didn’t I think of them before?”).
More than those specific parallels, I was struck in these stories by a similar affection for the characters. Both of these books are about the secret lives of toys, but they’re also about people children know or will come to know. Almost everyone has an Eeyore or an Owl in their lives, and we can all hope for affection from a friend like Piglet. In much the same way, the characters in Toys Go Out are vulnerable and appealing in a way that makes them instantly connectable for children. StingRay’s need to know everything (and willingness to make up facts when she doesn’t), Lumphy’s tough gruffness, and Plastic’s general bounciness are all characteristics that children can usually recognize in others … or in themselves.
If you’re looking for books to start (or hopefully continue) a family read-aloud routine, I can’t make a better recommendation than these two. They’re cozy, connectable, and very, very funny. And if you’re an adult fan of Winnie the Pooh, I also recommend you acquaint yourself with this new generation of literary friends. Happy reading!
For more background about these two books, their authors, and their illustrators, you might check out:
– Emily Jenkins’ website, with information about her books, teacher resources, and a particularly lovely autobiographical essay
– Paul O. Zelinsky’s website, featuring lots of information about this Caldecott-honored artist and his work
– There are a multitude of official and unofficial sites about Pooh Bear, but the site of Peter Dennis, connected to his audio books of Milne’s work, is particularly informative and well-constructed.
– Amazon.com’s biographical page about A.A. Milne also gives some background about the man and his work.