"Forget the lectures, go to bed and read something
light, my dear"
The college principal was advising a mature student, a harassed mother of two, for whom a bout of flu had been the final trigger bringing emotional collapse.
The grateful student was backing out of the room
when another thought struck her mentor.
"What books do you have for light reading?"
"I've got a couple of biographies in paperback"
"That's no good. I said light reading. Here, take these."
Lynne's first encounter with "Winnie the Pooh" and "The House at Pooh Corner" changed her life by teaching her how to laugh again. As an enthusiastic Bible student and a candidate for the mission field, she took life seriously and expected inspiration to come from 'deep' reading. She assumed, as most people do, that A A Milne is for children. When she told me her story I too learned to value these books long after I stopped calling myself 'young'.
The Disneyfied versions of these familiar sounding tales offer a view of the Hundred Acre Wood that just glances around the edge. That Sussex country scene holds depths, which Disney never plumbed, and childish readers cannot fathom. Pooh Bear and his friends have been marketed as two-dimensional cartoons portrayed in bright, primary colours, but they are much more interesting and subtle. They are thumbnail portraits of characters we meet in everyday life. You work with some of them, and meet others as you mix with people in clubs, churches, and neighbourhood organisations. These stories seem to talk about toys, but actually describe real people. It is said that Milne modelled his characters on colleagues in the editorial staff of a major newspaper. Pooh is for adults.
The traditional targeting of Pooh stories does not aim at children in general, but at the very young. How irrelevant! What pre-schooler can appreciate the linguistic jokes, the irony and the subtle character assassinations, which Milne sketches lightly onto the pages of these remarkable classics. You can't even appreciate the Chapter titles unless you know how to spell … titles like "a search is organdised", "Piglet meets a Heffalump" and the delightful "Contradiction", which prefaces the second of these books. I have tried reading these stories to small children and wondered at their pan-faced expressions as I struggled to keep reading with giggles bubbling in my chest. But the verbal humour flew right over the children's heads. I am not suggesting that 'Pooh' is highbrow material. The language is not challenging and you never need a dictionary to understand it. But a box of tissues may prove useful if you are the kind of person whose laughter runs to tears. The humour works in the same way that the best stand-up comedy does - by holding up a mirror to situations we meet in everyday life and making us see them differently.
Some of the 'Pooh' stories focus on the innocent ridiculousness of childhood; but it does it in ways that parents know and children don't. You'll spot your own children in the seriousness with which Pooh and Piglet set forth on some of their ambitious adventures. One snowy morning they set out in search of a 'woozle' with no clear image of what they are looking for or how they will handle this creature if they find it. Their trek through the snow leaves tracks and, with landmarks altered by the winter weather, they lose their sense of direction and loop back to their starting point. Their surprise at meeting two sets of tracks is entirely innocent and they begin following the spoor until yet more 'woozle' tracks join the first set … and so on. I read the story to some five and six-year-olds and none of them saw the point until I explained it. All of them have since grown up, earned good degrees and landed high-powered jobs, so they weren't stupid. But they were children. Do I make my point?
A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of "The House at Pooh Corner" and read it again, after a break of many years. I knew the stories, but was still surprised at the linguistic dexterity and the artful twists of plot, which the author effected without ever using a long word. I could also recall a recent visit that I made to the real "Pooh Sticks Bridge", now restored thanks to a donation from the Disney Corporation, and could more easily visualise the ever-mournful Eyeore floating on his back and drifting under the bridge. The book was an easy read, completed in just a few sniggering hours; but it was neither shallow nor disappointing. I shall return to Milne's stories again and again, both to enjoy the stories and to appreciate the writing skill in these artfully sketched character studies.
If your children have these books on their shelves, pick an opportunity to sneak in and read them for yourself. If you don't have these books in your home, go and get them. For a very low investment, you'll have the perfect antidote for the stress that life brings when you take it too seriously.