Learning about writing from Pooh

Has anybody read the Winnie The Pooh stories? Not the Disney abominations, but the wonderful originals published by A A Milne in the 1920s.

Japanese-style footbridge in Alexander Park, Napier.
This is the bridge I played Poohsticks from when I was a kid, it was just along the road from where we lived. The original one is in Britain, near Ashdown Forest.

I was brought up on them as a kid – we had the 1958 edition – and I still remember being taught how to play Poohsticks, a charming kids’ game where you drop two sticks off the upstream side of a bridge and then rush across to the other side to see which drifts by first, now played by university teams. (Ok, I know that today ‘charming kids’ games’ usually involve online virtual chainsaw massacres, zombies, taunts and such like, but Milne’s 1920s were a deliberately gentler time, and with good reason.)

Recently I picked up a copy of the original 1928 version – the 1944 Australasian Edition. Milne’s style reminded me of the fact that writing rules are made to be broken, providing you first know what you are doing.

What gives Milne’s stuff such charm is the package. It’s not just his creation of endless proper nouns out of ordinary words – ‘a Very Good Idea’, or ‘because I have One Or Two Things To Do’; or the hilarious conversations consisting entirely of fillers and the elidations of social convention. There’s also Milne’s creative use of language. Consider this line from ‘In Which Tigger Is Unbounced’:

“One day Rabbit and Piglet were sitting outside Pooh’s front door listening to Rabbit…”

At first sight it looks like a noob error – I mean, you can’t have the speaker listening to themselves. Should Milne’s editor have slashed it out and ‘fixed’ the problem? Actually, no. There isn’t a problem. What Milne does here is to tell us, in just one word, an awful lot about Rabbit’s sense of self-importance – one Milne explores in this and other stories.

The tales are full of this sort of thing, all of it very carefully calculated. And what it does is add an adult layer of meaning to stories that also appeal to kids. It was possible because Milne had complete control over his language – words were his servants. That’s a skill that comes with practise.

But enough about that. I’m off to the nearest river to play Poohsticks.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


9 thoughts on “Learning about writing from Pooh

  1. Yes. I have all of them (and the poetry books by A.A. Milne) And, thanks to technology, I am currently making use of Skype to read the originals to my Dutch friends. (with Skype they get to see the wonderful original drawings as well)

  2. I grew up on Pooh stories, too, and also read them to my children, but I don’t remember Poohsticks. As highly suspect as that game sounds, I totally want to play it now. Somebody get me to a stream, pronto.

  3. I can recall my wife playing Poohsticks on a footbridge across the river, when my kids were small. Probably a decade or so ago.

    I think a person can listen to themselves, I’d note, and I think some people enjoy doing so. Conversely, I think some others don’t listen to themselves, or so it seem when they are speaking.

  4. Yes! The original Milne stories have always been my favorite. They were what got me hooked on reading. They are also the reason why I didn’t care for the Disney animated features when they came out. As a child, I loved the creative spelling, especially on the maps…like rox. I was taken by the happy absurdity of it all. I haven’t read them since I was young. I think it’s time to go back and reread them. Wonderful post! Thank you for the reminder 😊

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