Written by Lindsay Mattick, Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Little, Brown and Company, 2015
Awards: Caldecott Medal
“Could you tell me a story?” asked Cole.
The plot in a nutshell: The origin story of the world’s most famous bear.
Cole’s mother tells the story of a veterinarian named Harry in Winnipeg who went abroad to care for horses in a war. During his train journey he meets a man with a bear cub and ends up buying the cub. Harry names her Winnipeg and calls her Winnie for short. He takes her across the sea to England and she becomes a sort of mascot for his company. When time comes for them to fight, he knows he has to part with Winnie. He takes her to the London Zoo and says goodbye, leaving her there to live her life where she will be cared for and happy. One day, a boy comes to the zoo with his father and is enchanted by Winnie. The boy’s name is Christopher Robin Milne and he even goes inside Winnie’s enclosure to play with her. He gives her name to his stuffed teddy bear, calling it Winnie-the-Pooh. Harry visits Winnie in the zoo and sees how loved she is before returning to his life in Winnipeg. He marries and has a son and generations pass down to a girl named Lindsay who grows up to write this book.
I had not read this book when it won the Caldecott Medal earlier this year and have to admit that I was rooting for some other contenders to bring home the prize. But now that I’ve read it, it’s easy to see the hundred reasons why it deserved the honor. Author Lindsay Mattick takes a story that is a part of her personal family history and sets it within the framework of a very endearing mother and son story time. She does a wonderful job smoothing out the harsher elements of the true story (such as the trapper and the war) while not completely glossing them over, which feels respectful to the story and its audience. I knew about the A.A. Milne connection going into it, but learning that she was the descendant of the man at the forefront of the story was a delightful surprise.
Sophie Blackall’s illustrations add even more warmth and character to this already adorable story. It seems clear that she drew some inspiration for her artwork from photographs (and the book includes some photographs of the real people involved), but there are wonderful little touches that go beyond what a photograph can show. One very affecting element comes when you compare the picture of Harry and his fellow soldiers heading off to war and coming home. One man comes home with part of a leg missing and there are definitely fewer men returning home. It’s not spelled out in the story text, but it’s there, once again showing respect for the story and those who lived it. Even the cover gets into the act, with a clever Harry & Winnie on the front mirroring a Christopher Robin & Winnie the Pooh on the back. And if you take the book jacket off, there’s an illustration of marching soldiers that evokes E. H. Shepard’s original Winnie the Pooh endpaper artwork. All in all, this book is very special.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that (and I’m taking this right from the book, because it’s perfect) sometimes you have to let one story end so the next one can begin.