“Finding Winnie – The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear” by Lindsay Mattick tells the story of the orphaned Canadian black bear cub that eventually became the inspiration for A.A. Milne’s beloved Winnie the Pooh. It is a wonderful story and a beautiful book which was awarded the Caldecott Medal for 2016.
The book is set up as a bedtime story from a mother to her son, Cole. She tells him about Harry, a veterinarian from Winnipeg who was called away to serve in the Canadian army during World War I. On a train station platform in a place called White River, Harry sees what he assumes to be an orphaned black bear cub held on a leash by a trapper. Harry paces and frets over what he ought to do, but in the end his “…heart (makes) up his mind.” Harry pays the trapper $20 for the cub, whom he dubs “Winnie” for his hometown of Winnipeg.
Winnie soon proves himself to be a “remarkable” bear. He becomes a well-loved member of Harry’s regiment, and Harry even brings Winnie across the Atlantic to England. When the order finally comes for Harry’s regiment to ship out to the Continent, he decides he must finally leave Winnie behind. Harry drives Winnie to London and places him in the care of the London Zoo, telling Winnie: “There is something you must always remember…It’s the most important thing really. Even if we’re apart, I’ll always love you. You’ll always be my bear.”
At this point the narrator pauses. “Is that the end?” asks Cole. His mother reassures him that while this is the end of Harry and Winnie’s story, “Sometimes…you have to let one story end so the next can begin”. She then launches into the story of a little boy who meets Winnie at the London Zoo and immediately thinks “there is something special about this bear.” This boy becomes close friends with Winnie, visiting him at the zoo and playing with him. He names his own stuffed bear after Winnie, and takes his bear out into the woods behind his house to have adventures. That boy is Christopher Robin Milne, and his father – A.A. Milne – eventually wrote books all about Christopher Robin and his bear, who became Winnie-the-Pooh.
The final twist of this delightful story is the revelation that Cole’s mother is the author herself (Lindsay Mattick), and that Harry is her great-grandfather and her son’s namesake: “Cole” for Captain Harry Colebourn.
There are so many things to appreciate about this book. Ms. Mattick’s story sends the message to follow your heart, and it is full of love and kindness for animals. Every time Harry lets his heart decide, he makes the decision that is the best for Winnie, and Cole’s mother describes “raising” a bear as being the same as “loving” a bear. I thought it was cute how Cole reminds his mother that bears eat vegetables and was struck by how a chance encounter and an impulsive act of kindness eventually led to the creation of one of the most loved characters in children’s literature – a character who has brought happiness to countless children (and adults) around the world. Most of all, I loved the passage in the book where Cole’s mother explains to Cole that “sometimes … you have to let one story end so the next one can begin,” and furthermore that you don’t know when that next story will happen, “which is why you should always carry on.”
Then, of course, there is the captivating artwork. Ms. Blackall’s ink and watercolor illustrations are rich with detail. The subdued, earthy color scheme and Ms. Blackall’s vintage style add a feeling of warmth and charm. The illustrations also serve as a second narrator – not just illustrating what the author is saying on the page, but filling in pieces of the story that can’t be found in the text. We actually found a wonderful interview with Ms. Blackall about the book in the “Shelf Awareness” blog at Blue Willow Book Store. In the interview, Ms. Blackall provides further background regarding her work in general and on “Winnie” in particular – including the amount of research she conducted in order to get the look and feel of the book just right. She also mentions the fact that there are lots of extra details that she snuck into her illustrations. We were able to translate the message she put in the nautical flags on the ships crossing the Atlantic. However, we are still scanning the overhead picture of the zoo to see what might be hidden there.
After this lengthy review, it may be redundant to say so, but we strongly recommend this book. We liked it enough after checking it out of the library that we had to hit the bookstore last night to purchase our own permanent copy. To use words Pooh himself might choose, “Finding Winnie” is “that kind of book”- the kind you will want to have for yourself.