Under my byline

Simple bear necessity

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 14 January 2009

OVERLEAF 12

Winnie-the-Pooh at his front door (c)It’s a bear market in publishing this week — and that’s good news. There is going to be another Winnie-the-Pooh book.

Another one? Enter that name into Amazon.com’s book search and you’ll get 10,000 results. Just about every conceivable permutation of Pooh and his fellows from the Hundred Acre Wood with every subject from management to philosophy, via cooking, has been done and sold in quantities before. Obviously Winnie-the-Pooh is one of those characters to whom a publisher turns with a gleam in the eye just as overall sales figures begin to dip: “Let’s do another Pooh book!”

But this new book is not like those. It’s a sequel, an honest sequel, to the two Pooh books written by A A Milne and illustrated by E H Shepard. After Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928) will come Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, to be released in October 2009 in the US and UK — in time for the Christmas shopping season. Penguin USA is to print 100,000 copies. Milne’s first Pooh book was also published in October, and by the end of the same year had sold 150,000 copies in the US alone.

Milne is long dead, and so is his son Christopher Robin, upon whom Milne modelled the little boy in his Pooh books (the bear was based on his son’s stuffed teddy). The Trustees of the Pooh Properties have chosen as Milne’s successor David Benedictus, a British playwright who has written audio CD adaptations of the Pooh stories. Mark Burgess, who has written and illustrated several children’s books, will step into Shepard’s boots. At 10 stories and 150 illustrations, the new book will even be of similar dimensions to Milne’s originals.

The publishers want the transition from old to new to be as seamless as possible. So, the new book starts soon after the last one ends, with Christopher Robin actually returning to the Wood for more adventures with Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Tigger. It will read as close to the original as Benedictus can manage, and Burgess’s illustrations will resemble the originals rather than the less-scruffy Disney versions.

Trouble is, Milne ended Pooh Corner on quite a firm terminal note. Christopher Robin is growing up. He’s about to leave for boarding school. “I’m not going to do Nothing any more,” he says. “Never again?” Pooh asks sadly, and Christopher Robin tells him: “Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”

We also know that, at school, the real Christopher Robin was mercilessly teased about his name, and that it took him many years to come to terms with what he believed his father had done to him. Milne’s son, like his father, was a fine writer none of whose other work attracted as much attention as his writing on and about Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s no surprise that father and son both felt trapped by Pooh’s success.

That success has made the after-history of Milne’s gentle characters bitter and contentious, mainly because of the immense sums of money involved (Disney made $6 billion in 2005 from its Pooh franchise, more than from its five or six next most-popular characters put together, Mickey Mouse included) and the legal tussles over royalties, video rights, who gets to decide what spin-offs are licensed, and so on. Having this ugly tale at the back of the mind makes it less easy to unreservedly welcome the new book.

This is all grown-up complication. But there is another stumbling block. “Whimsy,” wrote Jonathan Heawood in the UK Observer, in a different context, “is a uniquely English invention, a concoction of nostalgia, self-deprecation, irony and romanticism. It raises the comic observation to an art form, and looks askance at literary ambition… But whimsy is a sinkhole into which less brilliant writers disappear. Without the guidance of real talent, whimsical novels are jokes without punchlines.”

I can’t shake off the feeling that the classic age of whimsy in children’s books in English is past. Think of the most popular modern children’s writers, from Lewis Carroll onward — Beatrix Potter, Roald Dahl, &c., &c. — and each, to a different degree, was able to be utterly serious and utterly funny (also, decent to the core) at the same time. This is what makes for a great “crossover” hit within the realm of English publishing.

The proof is J K Rowling, who in her Harry Potter books uses whimsy in a way that’s clumsy, at best, but which nevertheless makes it possible for older readers to derive pleasure from the “think twice” effect of certain details (names especially: Diagon Alley, Draco Malfoy, Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, Gilderoy Lockhart, Avada Kedavra… the list is long).

Milne is subtler, of course, and he’s been a bestseller for 80 years. His Pooh books really are for adults to read aloud to children: that’s when they come alive. So, unless the anointed successor has as fine a talent for whimsy as Milne himself, the “new classic” doesn’t have a chance of joining the Pooh canon in the long run — even if it does raise the publishers’ bottomline this Christmas.

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One Response

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  1. regina said, on 18 August 2009 at 3:56 am

    good info ty


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