‘Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear’
By Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, Little Brown, $18, ages 3-6
Why is this book not boring? A children’s book about the little-known, real life origins of a series of children’s books seems like a concept too complicated, obscure, and, well, dull for a picture book. However this story about Winnie-the-Pooh’s roots is narratively complex, but ingeniously framed, deftly paced, with soft, moving illustrations; it reads seamlessly and connects even with little kids.
Most everyone has heard of Christopher Robin and many know that he was the son of A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie-the-Pooh books; Milne made his son and his son’s stuffed bear the stars of his beloved classics. The story of the real bear named Winnie — as outlandish as fiction — has been largely untold.
Captain Harry Colebourn was a veterinarian from Winnipeg and a soldier during World War I bound by train for a base of Canadian forces when he spied a trapper with a bear cub. The kind-hearted veterinarian impulsively offered $20 to the trapper who had killed the cub’s mother. Back on the train, the cub, which Colebourn calls Winnipeg — nicknamed Winnie — charms Colebourn’s colonel and quickly becomes his regiment’s unlikely mascot eating and drinking from the men’s arms. Once a member of the army, Winnie learned all kinds of things — how to stand up straight and find hidden objects. When the time came for the regiment to sail overseas to England, Winnie made the journey too, along with 30 ships carrying about 36,000 men and 7,500 horses. But when it came time for Colebourn and his fellow soldiers to make their way to the front, Colebourn installed Winnie in the London Zoo to keep her safe.
It was there that Milne and his son, Christopher Robin, first met the bear that inspired the iconic children’s books.
Those concerned about the fate of Winnie’s veterinarian friend need not worry. In the book’s final pages readers learn that Colebourn survived the war. The involved tale has been framed from the start as a bedtime story told by a mother to her son. The surprise? The mother and son are revealed to be Colebourn’s great-granddaughter (author Mattick) and great-great-grandson, Cole. Children will share Cole’s fascination with this engaging story that guides young readers but never condescends, trusting their ability to be absorbed by a complex historical tale.