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A scene from the new tale
A scene from the new tale

Children's Books Special

Milne redux? 'Pooh!' we say Add to ...

Wikipedia is a treasure trove of trivia about Winnie-the-Pooh, or Winnie the Pooh without the hyphens, as A.A. Milne's creation came to be known once Disney got a paw-hold. Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926 ( The House at Pooh Corner followed in 1928) and one of the facts you can glean from the Wikipedia Pooh entry is that by November, 1931, the world of Pooh was a $50-million-a-year business.

In 1961, Disney acquired the rights to most of the Pooh empire, and today Pooh is more lucrative than all the other Disney characters combined. As you may have noticed, Pooh merchandise of all persuasions (Pooh, Piglet and Tigger, too) litters the universe of toys, videos, movies and something Disney calls "featurettes."

It isn't too hard, then, to rustle up a little empathy for Dorothy Parker's antipathy toward Milne's creation. Wikipedia notes that "under her pseudonym as Constant Reader in The New Yorker magazine she made one of her most famous barbs when she, while reviewing one of the stories, wrote, "and it is precisely at that word, 'hunny,' that Tonstant Weader fwowed up." Hers would not be an opinion unanimously shared, though, by the vast majority of anglophone or anglophile readers who, over the past 80 years, have cut their literary milk teeth on Milne's Bear of Little Brain and his cohorts.

There is much to love about Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh. There is, to start with, the Bear himself, a repository of all the foibles to which anyone with only "hunny" on his brain might be heir. There's steadfast Piglet and manic Roo and depressive, prickly Eeyore, the sad donkey who lives on thistles, and magisterial Owl, and the kind, loving all-behaviours-accepting impresario of this pre-lapsarian world, Christopher Robin.

Eeyore might say that the Benedictus version is all narrative ... with very little of the lovely, wafty dialogue that leavens Milne's

There is enchantment to be had in every chapter, in every poem - or "hum," in games of "Poohsticks," in constructions of this and that and tea parties and "expotitions" to far-off places. The narrative is cut with dialogue notable for its delightful meanderings and musings, and all the goings-on that can and can't be captured in words are amplified and enhanced by Ernest Shepherd's full-page watercolours and a multitude of small, charming pen-and-ink drawings sprinkled on almost every page.

Enter then, David Benedictus, more than 80 years after the publication of the original Winnie-the-Pooh, with his Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, illustrated by Mark Burgess, "in the tradition of A.A. Milne & Ernest Shepherd." Benedictus entered the world of Pooh via audiobooks, excellent ones, too, by all accounts, of the Pooh books; Judi Dench and other starry voices bring these books beautifully to life. Presumably as a result of the integrity of this endeavour, Benedictus was able to convince the trustees of the Milne estate that a continuation of the adventures of Pooh and company would be a good thing, and that he and Mark Burgess were the right people to do it.

Is it a good thing, this book of 10 stories that has as its launching point Christopher Robin's return to the 100 Acre Wood from boarding school? The answer to that question probably depends on your disposition. If you, like Pooh, are an amiable sort, you might say yes. Who, after all, would quarrel with more tales of a sweetness (without the saccharine) and gentleness unusual in this day of rat-a-tat video bombardment? Who wouldn't enjoy more "hunny," more gentle adventures with old friends in a paradisical place?

Who wouldn't is a churlish sort, an Eeyore-ish person who might grumble that Milne's Pooh was pretty well perfect and didn't need extensions or continuations, no matter how tempting that might be. This Eeyore might say that the Benedictus version is all narrative, a thicket of not-so-tasty thistles, with very little of the lovely, wafty dialogue that leavens Milne's.

This bad-tempered donkey might say, too, that Mark Burgess, as good an illustrator as he might be, is no Ernest Shepherd, and anyway, where are all those lovely line drawings we enjoyed so much in the original? And this Eeyore would have his head down and his tale between his legs, in full-on protective stance against the avalanche of new Pooh "product" that is about to descend upon us all.

Susan Perren is The Globe and Mail's children's book columnist.

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