Tag Archives: Mary Poppins

“I’ve been to London to visit the queen”

I’ve been absent from this favourite space of mine for too long, and I’m reminded of the humble tone in the letters I used to write to my grandparents too many weeks after Christmas had passed. “I’m sorry I haven’t written sooner, but thank you for new nightgown, I do like blue.”

Truth be told, I’ve been busy. I’ve just returned from a research trip to London, England, and I am now sorting through the maze of information found there, and hopefully figuring out how to make it into a story.

I went on the trip with my sister and co-author, Tracy Kasaboski (our first collaboration was The Occupied Garden), and my mom and our sister Heidi came along as research assistants.

It was the first time we’d really traveled together just the four of us since our childhoods, and we had an amazing time. The city is a dizzying mix of old and new — you can still find the cramped courts and alleys that will feature in our story, set in late Victorian and Edwardian times, but everywhere you turn there’s something that gives the city a playground quality: the Eye, the Shard, the Millennium Dome. Along with the beautiful bridges that stretch over the Thames, there are cable cars soaring back and forth. At night, the skyline has a neon sparkle.

The last time I was in London was when I was pregnant with N. I didn’t yet know how many of our most treasured books would take us there, but I’ve been thinking about it today, and have compiled a sampling:

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?

I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.

Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you there?

I frightened a mouse under a chair.

N loved this book of old nursery rhymes, with its patchwork imagery and picture-words.

“At last they came to St Paul’s Cathedral, which was built a long time ago by a man with a bird’s name. Wren it was, but he was no relation to Jenny. That is why so many birds live near Sir Christopher Wren’s Cathedral, which also belongs to St Paul, and that is why the Bird Woman lives there too…. All round her flew the birds, circling and leaping and swooping and rising…. They flew round and round the head of the Bird Woman as the children approached, and then, as though to tease her, they suddenly rushed away through the air and sat on the top of St Paul’s, laughing and turning their heads away and pretending they didn’t know her.”

A 2009 original Quentin Blake knock off by N

“Sophie and the BFG came at last to a large place full of trees. There was a road running through it, and a lake. There were no people in this place and the BFG stopped for the first time since they had set out from his cave many hours before.

‘What’s the matter?’ Sophie whispered in her under-the-breath voice.

‘I is in a bit of a puddle,’ he said.

‘You’re doing marvellously,’ Sophie whispered.

‘No I isn’t,’ he said. ‘I is now completely boggled. I is lost.’

‘But why?’

‘Because we is meant to be in the middle of London and suddenly we is in green pastures.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ Sophie whispered. ‘This is the middle of London. It’s called Hyde Park. I know exactly where we are.'”

“‘Wendy, I ran away the day I was born….

It was because I heard father and mother,’ he explained in a low voice, ‘talking about what I was to be when I became a man.’

He was extraordinarily agitated now.

‘I don’t ever want to be a man,’ he said with passion. ‘I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. So I ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived a long time among the fairies.'”

“Ron pressed a tiny silver button on the dashboard. The car around them vanished — and so did they. Harry could feel the seat vibrating beneath him, hear the engine, feel his hands on his knees and his glasses on his nose, but for all he could see, he had become a pair of eyeballs, floating a few feet above the ground in a dingy street full of parked cars.

‘Let’s go,’ said Ron’s voice from his right.

The ground and the dirty buildings on either side fell away, dropping out of sight as the car rose; in seconds, the whole of London lay, smoky and glittering, below them.”

“This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our own world and Narnia first began. In those days Mr Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in Lewisham Road. In those days, if you were a boy you had to wear a stiff Eton collar every day, and schools were usually nastier than now. But meals were nicer; and as for sweets, I won’t tell you how cheap and good they were, because it would only make your mouth water in vain. And in those days there lived in London a girl called Polly Plummer.”

Last but not least, A Christmas Carol comes to mind.

“They scarcely seemed to enter the city; for the city rather seemed to spring up about them, and encompass them of its own act. But there they were, in the heart of it; on ‘Change, amongst the merchants; who hurried up and down, and chinked the money in their pockets, and conversed in groups, and looked at their watches, and trifled thoughtfully with their great gold seals; and so forth, as Scrooge had often seen them.”

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Guest post by N: a literary Halloween

N is gearing up for Halloween. Actually she’s been doing that since the spring, but her costume is taking shape now, and that is always exciting. It’s a literary theme this year, which reminds me of when N was three and she dressed as Mary Poppins. This year she’ll be Hermione-Granger-from-book-3 (an important distinction, I’m told), and her friend A from up the street will be Dorothy Gale. I love these costumes the best when they are home-made, or pieced together from things found here and there. N and I took a trip to Value Village and N made a bee-line for the costume section with its ready-made vampires and lions. But we quickly discovered that the best things were in the main part of the store, hanging on racks among the ordinary clothes, waiting for us to discover them.

N stayed up late last night scribbling her ideas for Hermione and A’s ideas for Dorothy into a new book she’s just begun. Here are a couple of excerpts from “Halloween Costume Making”:

How to make a Hermione costume

You will need: a black jacket with a hood that should have no zippers or buttons. The sleeves should look like this:

If you don’t have that, you can take the zipper or the button off it and use black fabric and sewing glue and attach a long part to the bottom of the sleeve. You will also need a white shirt that has a collar, a grey sweater with a V neck, a red and yellow striped tie, a skirt like this:

(it should also be grey or black). You will also need leggings or grey tites.

How to make a Dorothy costume

You will need: a blue and white cheker fabric, elastic, sewing glue, and an old basket. What you need to do: you need to make sure that the fabric is the right size, and you need to make a loop the wideness of the elastic, and close the bottom of the loop with the glue, then put the elastic in the littel holes:

If you have a chekerd blue and white t-shirt that wood do, if not then colour an old white t-shirt with blue and white squares. You can decorate the old basket and put a stuffed dog in it (for Toto). You will also need to get a reddish brownish wig for her hair. You will also need an old pair of shoes and put red glitter all over them.

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Fear makes you tiny

Good friends of ours are finally coming to the end of an extensive house renovation that’s pushed them down to the basement, the four of them in one room with a makeshift kitchen and beds. Now and again they’ve emerged dazed, squinting at the brightness of daylight, and shaking the plaster dust from their hair. “You’ve been living like the borrowers,” I said to my friend, and she laughed and agreed. Later I sought out the book and showed it to N to see if she’d be interested, and now we are well into this 1952 Carnegie medal winner by English author Mary Norton.

I remember loving this novel as a child — the teeny-tininess of the people and their things, the dressers made of stacked-up match boxes, the postage stamps hanging like portraits on the walls, and also the story within a story within a story: as the book opens, an old woman named Mrs. May tells “wild, untidy, self-willed” Kate about the miniature people she learned of in her own long-ago childhood. But it wasn’t Mrs. May who saw the borrowers first-hand; it was her little brother, who’d been sent to Great Aunt Sophy’s in the country to recover from rheumatic fever. Through the night he would hear an old grandfather clock striking the hours. “And, under this clock, below the wainscot, there was a hole….” From here the story dips beneath the floor, through dark and dusty passageways, to the place where the borrowers live.

I recall trying this book with N some time ago, but the complexities around whose story it was seemed a little beyond her. She needed a clearer entry point back then, so that she could go hand in hand with her protagonist through the book. Now, she follows every twist and turn, regularly pointing out that what the borrowers are doing is certainly not borrowing.

“I mean, I don’t think they ever bring any of those things back, do they?”

She’s quite intrigued by Arrietty, only child of Homily and Pod Clock, who longs to know what it’s like upstairs, outside, or even in the far away lands where other borrowers have gone. The Clocks are the only borrowers left in the house by the time the story starts, and for Homily and Pod it’s a point of pride to remain. Not so for Arrietty. “I know we’ve managed to stay on when all the others have gone. But what has it done for us, in the end? I don’t think it’s so clever to live on alone, for ever and ever, in a great, big, half-empty house; under the floor, with no one to talk to, no one to play with, nothing to see but dust and passages, no light but candlelight and firelight and what comes through the cracks.”

But the world outside is dangerous. So much so that only men creep out to borrow necessities for survival, scuttling across floors and climbing curtains and risking being seen by “human beans.” Women and girls stay in their dark, safe places with the house creaking and groaning above them.

N’s eyes widened at this. “You mean girls can’t borrow?” she asked. “Just because they’re girls? That’s not fair.” That’s what Arrietty thinks too, of course, but she’s grown up hearing about the disappearance of her cousin, Eggletina, whose curiosity got the better of her. One day she sneaked upstairs “in a blue dress and a pair of button-boots … yellow kid with jet beads for buttons. Lovely they were.” Eggletina never returned, but her legend grew. “It just broke up your uncle Hendreary,” said Homily at last. “He never went upstairs again — in case, he said, he found the button-boots. Their only future was to emigrate.”

This is essentially a story of fear and of freedom. Early on Mrs. May tells Kate that the borrowers were not always so tiny. “It was because they were frightened that they had grown so small. Each generation had become smaller and smaller, and more and more hidden.” Arrietty doesn’t want to live in fear. When she finally gets outside, she discovers how glorious it is to run. “You could never run under the floor: you walked, you stooped, you crawled — but you never ran.” She marvels at the giant coloured stones and the waist-high blades of grass; she picks a primrose and holds it like a parasol. And then something glitters nearby. “It was an eye. Or it looked like an eye. Clear and bright like the colour of the sky. An eye like her own but enormous. A glaring eye.”

And that’s where we left off this morning — tasting freedom, Arrietty had been seen.

The Carnegie Greenaway Living Archive tells me that Mary Norton was born in 1903 in London, and raised in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, the setting she chose for The Borrowers series (there are five books in all). She was short-sighted, and mesmerized by the tiny creatures she’d see crawling in the grass, set against the blurred back drop of the larger world. She was a secretary, an actress at the Old Vic Theatre Company, and then a wife and mother before she started writing children’s books. Her first was The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons, published in 1943, and followed up by the sequel Bonfires and Broomsticks. Good old Walt Disney merged the stories into the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks and of course (given the success of Mary Poppins) set it all to music. I love the early cover shown here of The Magic Bed Knob. It reminds me so much of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl’s books, and especially for his own Mrs. Armitage on Wheels. So I did a search for Waldo and Quentin together, just to see what would come up. I digress slightly, but here’s what I found at nationmaster.com, under the heading “practical joke”:

“The American humorist H. Allen Smith wrote a 320-page book in 1953 called The Compleat Practical Joker that contains many examples of practical jokes. A typical one, recalled as his favorite by the playwright Charles MacArthur, concerns the American painter and bohemian character Waldo Peirce. Peirce was living in Paris in the 1920s and ‘made a gift of a very small turtle to the woman who was the concierge of his building.’ The woman doted on the turtle and lavished it with care and affection. A few days later Peirce substituted a somewhat larger turtle for the original one. This continued for some time, with larger and larger turtles being surreptitiously introduced into the woman’s apartment. The concierge was beside herself with happiness and displayed her miraculous turtle to the entire neighborhood. Peirce then began to sneak in and replace the turtle with smaller and smaller ones, to her bewildered distress. This was the storyline behind Esio Trot, by Roald Dahl.”

I love how things go around, and come around.

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Verry scary and daownright duh

Since finishing Harry, we’ve whizzed through Annie Barrows’ latest Ivy and Bean, What’s the Big Idea?, in which the girls tackle global warming by throwing ice cubes into the sky while jumping on a trampoline. Bean’s big sister nasty Nancy points out that “The sun is stronger than a billion ice cubes. And besides, making ice cubes uses up energy. Duh.”

(By the way, lately we’ve been discussing whether or not “duh” is a good thing to say, and what it actually means, and so on. I think it means “You’re stupid,” and that it should never be used. N, who utters the word on occasion, thinks it depends on one’s tone, and that it could well mean, “Uh, I think you should have thought a little bit harder, don’t you?” I suggested we do a survey, and began to ask people, but since everyone I’ve asked agrees with me, N’s enthusiasm for the survey has dwindled. Still, if you want to chime in on “What does duh mean and should you say it?” please do!)

A great image from graphicsfairy.blogspot.com

After our Ivy and Bean fix, we devoured the frightening Coraline, Neil Gaiman’s story about a girl who discovers in the flat next door an “other mother” and an “other father” who claim her for their own. They have black button eyes and want to give her black button eyes too. The gleaming needle and the thread sit on the counter beside the buttons, waiting to be stitched in. The other mother’s so-called love for Coraline is chilling — really the scariest thing in the book — because it is both empty and smothering. Coraline can have whatever she wants with the other mother forever. “The world will be built new for you every morning.” But she knows better, and frantically tries to escape.

“I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really.”

The first night we read this book was scary for N. She didn’t mention her fear while we read, but as I tucked her in, she asked, with the covers pulled up to her nose, “Is there really such a thing as an ‘other mother’ and an ‘other father’?” And I assured her no, there was not, and that we could close that book up and read another if she liked. “No,” she said firmly. “I want to read it right to the end and then never read it again.” And so we did. Coraline got to safety, and we escaped to the world of Mary Poppins, full of dancing red cows, talking dogs, floating uncles, and raspberry jam cakes. I promised to read the PL Travers book a few posts back, when I wrote about the movie, and now we are halfway through, and enjoying the enigmatic Mary immensely.

I found some beautiful old photographs the other day, stashed away in the closet. My husband used these images in an installation years ago, and says that some are family and some are not, but he isn’t really sure which. In the pile I came across two of mother and child with book. If these are relatives of N’s, who are they? What are they reading? Why did they choose to have their photographs taken with book in hand?

I should ask N herself. I’m sure she would have an answer. She’s always said she can sneak around in the past — that she’s spied on her grandmother back there, “but she didn’t recognize me because she was just a little girl, and I hadn’t been born yet.” It works the other way too. In this time zone, she sometimes sees people who died before she was born.

I was telling her once that it was sad Daddy’s dad died before N and I could meet him. And she said, “Oh, I’ve met him. I’ve seen Grandpa Peter’s ghost. He isn’t scary at all.”

Another gift from the graphics fairy

Lately she’s been clacking away on his old typewriter, brought for our amusement by her grandma. It had been sitting unused in her study for years, and it occurred to me that N would enjoy the immediacy of putting her printed words on paper — actually seeing them printed as she typed. She first tried it out with her friend A, and together they wrote a story about a poor girl named Katara who had to make everything she owned. “She had to get newspapers from the garbage and she had no parents.” A wrote the Katara bits, and N wrote the Emma bits. “Emma was verry rich,” she typed, and A, a year-and-a-half wiser and peeking over her shoulder, said “Very just has one r.” N said “No it doesn’t, it has two.” At which point I spoke up and said that A was right, but that I could see why N would add an extra r to very, to make it more — well — verry.

I’ve been thinking a lot about spelling. My latest novel, And Me Among Them, is soon to be published in the U.S., and I’ve been busy doing a final proofread of the American editor’s changes. It’s too bad about all the lost u’s, the a that has fallen out of anaesthetic, and the o utterly gone from manoeuver. (Which reminds me that I just bought James Thurber’s The Wonderful O, and cannot wait to dip into it with N.) N’s French spelling is excellent, since she’s tested on new words once a week. But her English spelling is much more interesting! In another Emma story, this time created with friend T, she wrote:

Her mother cald her daown for breacfast time. Emma comme daown! So she went daown to the cichan.

To me it has an Old English flavour, an excess that I absolutely love, and that I should probably be correcting more than I do. But I’m sure it will sort itself out. She reads on her own more often now, and over my shoulder too, and if she sees words often enough they seem to imprint themselves on her memory.

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Feeding the Birds

Mary Shepard's illustration of Mary Poppins, 1934

I volunteered at N’s school this morning, and we walked there together, along with her friend A, and somehow the conversation turned to Mary Poppins. I treated the girls to my warbling rendition of Feed the Birds, the scene where a “little old bird woman” sits on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, selling breadcrumbs for tuppence a bag. And as I crooned, I was thinking that it was the wind that made N and I watch Mary Poppins the first time.

Some years ago, when she was 3, we’d been standing at a busy corner, waiting for the light to change. It was raining a little, and very windy, and we had our umbrellas up. Suddenly a huge gust whipped around us, pulling, and it felt as though we might be lifted up into the sky. I laughed and squeezed N’s hand, shouting, “Hang on!” And I thought of Mary floating through the sky towards her charges, with only her will and her umbrella to keep her airborne. After that we marched spit-spot to the movie store, skipping our other errands, and at home we curled up with hot chocolate and watched the magic unfold.

Bert’s English accent is something quite atrocious, but Mary can make a chalk drawing open into the lush countryside, and inspire toys to put themselves away; she can win horse races wearing a flouncy hat and dress, and she can always think of something to say when she has nothing to say — supercalifragilisticexpialidocious  (which coincidentally is the very song N is learning in piano this week). Her carpetbag, containing everything she could possibly need, including houseplants and floor lamps, is not unlike Hermione’s beaded bag in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, so perhaps Mary knew the Undetectable Extension Charm? Or was herself a student at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, long before Potter’s time? Well, we’ll never know, because as the first chapter of P.L. Travers’ 1934 novel tells us, “Mary Poppins never told anybody anything.”

There were eight Mary Poppins books, published at long intervals, over a period of more than fifty years. Mary Shepard illustrated all of them.

I’m curious to read the Mary Poppins books, since the character of Mary sounds darker and more mysterious than Julie Andrews’ version. Travers herself was a bit of a mystery too: a single mom, an actress, a poet, a dancer, a journalist, and possibly a curmudgeon before she took to writing children’s books. She was apparently involved as an adviser on the1964 musical, but she didn’t like the way Mary’s character had been sweetened with Walt Disney’s spoonful of sugar, and she didn’t like Walt much either. She never again agreed to another Disney adaptation. The Mary she created had shiny black hair like a wooden doll’s, and “large feet and hands, and small, rather peering eyes.” She gave fierce, terrible glances that told you “you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her. There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.”

Originally Travers had hoped E.H. Shepard of Winnie the Pooh fame would illustrate the Poppins books, but he was too busy. And then by chance she discovered the drawings of Shepard’s daughter, Mary, a young woman just out of art school. The image that caught her eye was penned on a Christmas card, and showed a horse flying through the air, Poppins style. “Of course it wasn’t Leonardo, but I didn’t need Leonardo,” Travers later wrote. “I was after a happy imperfection, innocence without naivete, and, as well, a sense of wonder.” The young Mary Shepard — who said she felt like Eeyore in Travers’ domineering presence — was easily manipulated. Travers led her on walks through the park to point out possible likenesses for the characters in the book, and vetoed the position of the protagonist’s feet. Shepard wanted fifth position, with the feet turned out, but Travers insisted on fourth, with the feet at right angles. And like the stern Mary Poppins she created, she was not a woman to be argued with. Eventually, though, Shepard’s depictions of Mary and the Banks family took shape, and added a charming new layer to Travers’ story.

Walt must have sided with Mary Shepard -- notice Mary Poppins' feet are in the fifth position....

Unlike Travers, I’m a fan of the movie. It’s nostalgic for me, and very much of  my time — but I agree that something vital is lost when we take the edge out of children’s stories. When we make things too happy and pretty and sweet for them. I remember N’s Bambi phase, and how I cringed every time Bambi’s father said, in his deep, serious voice, “Your mother can’t be with you anymore.” But it seemed to me N was figuring things out by watching — big concepts given clarity by storytelling. Food, in a way.

And still today that’s happening. The drama in Harry Potter is sometimes pretty intense, what with Harry, Ron and Hermione searching out the various hiding places of the Dark Lord’s severed soul and destroying these “horcruxes” one by one for the greater good. The other night as we lay in bed reading, N grew increasingly agitated when Ron seemed unwilling or unable to destroy one. Evil emanated from the nasty thing, and grabbed onto his deepest weaknesses, ensuring him he was “least loved … second best, always, eternally overshadowed.” Suddenly N let out a great wail of exasperation and shouted “I wish she would just write the story the way I have it in my head! This can’t be happening!

I know that feeling. When you are so immersed in a story, and it twists in a way you never imagined, and you want to scream, NOOOO!, but you keep reading all the same, even more compelled than you were before. It happens with children’s books and adults’ books alike, if the writer is savvy enough — though I don’t know why I make the distinction. Travers certainly didn’t. According to biographer Valerie Lawson, author of Mary Poppins, She Wrote, Travers always denied writing with an audience in mind. “I never know why Mary Poppins is thought of as a children’s book. Indeed I don’t think there are such things. There are simply books and some of them children read.”

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"If a writer, why not write?" in which A.A. Milne shows Eeyore traits and Dorothy Parker throws up

a__a__milne

A.A. Milne, author of more than Pooh

“The only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything is that I want to write it; and I should be as proud to be delivered of a Telephone Directory con amore as I should be ashamed to create a Blank Verse Tragedy at the bidding of others.”

There’s a lot tucked away in this one sentence of Alan Alexander Milne’s.  The quote comes from his introduction to his  whodunit, The Red House Mystery, published in 1922. Milne was about 40 then, with a wife and young son Christopher Robin, who would soon inspire the Pooh stories for which Milne is now so well known.  You can see a glimmer of them here, in the way the words Telephone Directory and Blank Verse Tragedy are capitalized. (“I have been Foolish and Deluded. I am a Bear of No Brain at All.”)

Interesting, too, this musing on what he should and should not write. What he’d feel proud or ashamed of. He worked many years for Punch magazine, as did Ernest Howard Shepard, who illustrated Milne’s children’s stories. Milne also wrote a number of plays, an autobiography, short stories, novels, political non-fiction, and a kind of adult fairytale called Once on a Time. But the world of the Hundred Acre Wood — containing his son, and a bear, pig, donkey, tiger and kangaroo bought at Harod’s — quickly came to define him.

Milne himself lamented:

If a writer, why not write
On whatever comes in sight?
So — the Children’s Books; a short
Intermezzo of a sort:
When I wrote them, little thinking
All my years of pen-and-inking
Would be almost lost among
Those four trifles for the young.

returnI wonder what he would think of the new book by David Benedictus, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, complete with Shepardesque “decorations” by Mark Burgess. The story picks up where Milne left off, and brings Christopher Robin back from school on a new blue bicycle that all his animal friends admire. Christopher is more grown up than he was in the early stories — he knows what a thesaurus can do,  and notices things like the number of countries on his map that are coloured pink. But in some ways he remains the same: Pooh, staying with him that night, sits on a chair in the bathroom. “What he really wanted to see was whether he still wore his blue braces, and, yes, he did (but not in the bath).”

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is lovingly and carefully created. Benedictus mimics Milne’s style effortlessly and with obvious admiration, and Burgess’s illustrations are as subtle and charming as Shepard’s were. There’s a new character, Lottie the somewhat feisty Otter, whose teeth are “sharp enough, I can promise you, when they need to be.” These are all things to admire (the but is still to come) and my daughter is enjoying the book as much as she enjoyed the original stories, maybe more, because she’s older now and getting more out of the readings. Piglet is still her favourite character (I think she sees herself in him), and she is intrigued by Owl’s spelling mistakes, something that would have been lost on her when we last read the original stories.

dorothy parker

Poor her: the Tonstant Weader

She is delighted by the very things that so famously irritated Dorothy Parker — the “frequent droppings into more cadenced whimsy,” as she put it in her scathing New Yorker review of The House at Pooh Corner back in 1928. Parker was known as the Constant Reader, but had read enough when it came to Pooh’s silly little hums and a plot that consisted of practicing one for Eeyore.

“Pom,” said Pooh. “I put that in to make it more hummy.”

And in response, Parker wrote, “it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up.”

In the words of a wise, good friend of mine: “Poor her, unable to enjoy a simple hum.”

But even Milne may have reached that stage eventually. His Pooh stories — though an “intermezzo” — became so successful that they eclipsed his other work. During WW2, demand for the Pooh stories soared, and only continued in the postwar era. Now, of course, we have tubby Disney Pooh in his too-tight red t-shirt, and any number of Pooh products are available for purchase. At one point, Milne wrote that any reference to the silly old bear was “infuriating.”

enchanted places

The real Christopher Robin

And Christopher Robin — a real person, after all — was indelibly inked into childhood by a kind but distant father who “got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders … [and] left me with the empty fame of being his son…. One day I will write verses about him and see how he likes it.” (Actually Christopher Robin Milne did write three books about sharing his life with Pooh.)

It seems E.H. Shepard was similarly undone. Pooh — whose image was based on Shepard’s son’s bear, Growler — dominated, while Shepard’s other accomplishments were thrown into shadow. He drew for Punch for years, illustrated many other children’s books, including a couple of his own. He also authored two memoirs, Drawn from Memory and Drawn from Life. It seems his talents — or perhap his passion — ran in the family. His son, Graham, was an illustrator, but was killed in WW2, and his daughter, Mary, illustrated the Mary Poppins books.

shepard's dream days

Grahame's Dream Days, illustrated by E.H. Shepard

I was surprised to discover my own personal link to Shepard, however tangential. Along with the lovely example at right, he illustrated a version of Tom Brown’s School-Days, the Victorian-era story about a boy at Rugby School, by Thomas Hughes. Hughes was the father of Lillian Hughes, who died on the Titanic, but years earlier had befriended my great-grandmother. My grandmother’s middle name was Lillian, in honour of her.

But back to the story at hand. As I read Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, much as I enjoy Lottie, and Rabbit undertaking a census, and the Bear with no Brain outsmarting a swarm of bees, I can’t help but think back to the way the old tale ended — with Christopher Robin’s poignant declaration that he wouldn’t be “doing Nothing” any more, and that he hoped Pooh would understand. It was mysterious, but you got the sense that he was growing up, moving on — and that it was time to do so — but that some part of him would always remain in that enchanted place with his Bear. Really it seems like a perfect ending.

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