If You Like Winnie the Pooh, Then You’ll Love …

Winnie the Pooh Story

Winnie the Pooh Story (Photo credit: sanctumsolitude)

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.

Original Winnie the Pooh stuffed toys. Clockwi...

Original Winnie the Pooh stuffed toys. Clockwise from bottom left: Tigger, Kanga, Edward Bear (aka Winnie-the-Pooh), Eeyore, and Piglet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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Netflix Meets the Children’s Shelf (or Why Big Brother Watching You Isn’t Always Such a Bad Thing)

I admit it: I just love it when I visit a website like Amazon or Netflix and up pops a window with special recommendations, “just for you.”  I know I should probably be a little creeped out or offended that they’re keeping tabs on me, but honestly, I’m just tickled by it.  I won’t say their algorithms are always accurate (I usually get a flood of particularly random “recommendations” right after buying gifts during the holidays), but occasionally I’ll discover something new and genuinely interesting.  Perhaps even more fascinating than the recommendations themselves is the science that goes into them.  What exactly is it about my interest in Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” that makes me more likely to enjoy “Upstairs, Downstairs”?

I sometimes find myself creating my own informal version of these “recommended for you” algorithms when I talk about books with children.  If you ask a child wandering aimlessly through the library what kind of book you can help them find, the answer will typically be “you know … a … good book.”  It’s more fruitful to start by narrowing down genres.  A picture book?  Nonfiction?  Fiction?  Do they want a book with talking animals?  A realistic fiction book?  How about a fantasy book?  But even with all those categories, the final key is often something like a Netflix-style rating: “Tell me about a book you just loved.  Maybe we can find something like it.”  Or, if you want to be more focused in your questioning: “When you say you want a funny book, do you mean funny like Judy Moody or funny like Captain Underpants?”  With the right keystone book, you can often find a recommendation that shares just enough qualities to hook in a reader.  (“You know, if you’re looking for something really silly and a little gross, with funny pictures like Captain Underpants, how about …”)

A Series of Unfortunate Events

A Series of Unfortunate Events (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mind you, marketers try this kind of thing all the time with children’s books, but often with varying degrees of accuracy.  After the blockbuster success of A Series of Unfortunate Events there was a sudden flood of novels with dark, depressing stories about orphans with an Edward Gorey style cover.  In order for that kind of marketing to work, however, the connections between the old and new have to be more than skin-deep.

We can help children to make some of these connections themselves by starting to recognize ideas about genre, or pick up on elements of an author’s style that pulls them back again and again to that author.  Still, it never hurts to have a few “connected texts” in our back pockets as adults, ready to offer to wandering readers when needed.  As an adult, one of the great pleasures of continuing to explore new children’s books is finding ways that new texts connect back to a story from my childhood, or ways that a fan of a more recent novel can be led back through it to an older book.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be offering up some of my own “If you like … then you’ll love …” pairings.  Coming up next week will be a true old favorite and a book I consider a new classic: I believe that fans of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne will just love Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins.  While you’re waiting to hear my pitch for this great combination, feel free to share your own “If you like … then you’ll love …” pairs in the comments section.  Happy reading!