If you look closely you will find that behind every story another story just waiting to be told. Most of us never think about the inspiration for some of our favorite children’s books. But, as adults we get to discover the real tales just below the surface of the books that once set our imaginations ablaze. Winnie-the-Pooh is one of the most beloved characters in all of children’s literature, but the story behind the making of these legendary stories might just surprise you.
Alan Alexander Milne had intentions of being known as a great playwright and essayist – a key observer of the world around him. But, even before his Winnie-the-Pooh books, the English author had dipped his toe in the waters of children’s entertainment by writing a stage adaptation of The Wind in the Willows called Toad of Toad Hall.
Milne became wealthy from the profits of his four wildly popular Winnie-the-Pooh books:
When We Were Very Young (1924), the first illustrated appearance of Pooh Bear from artist E.H. Shepard, although he was named Mr. Edward Bear at the time, followed by Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), Now We Are Six (1927), and the final book The House at Pooh Corner (1928).
But, later in life Milne was sorely disappointed that his series of four books depicting a little boy named Christopher Robin and his animal friends would come to eclipse all his other work and that he would be known to history only as the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh.
The basis for the character of Christopher Robin was Milne’s son whose name he unapologetically used for his books. Christopher Robin was born in 1920 and so was about 4 when first mention of his bear was made public. The exploits of his young son were dramatized and embellished upon, with Milne being a staid sort who did not generally play with children, even his own.
Winnie-the-Pooh was named after Christopher Robin’s toy bear who was in turn named for animals he had encountered. The real Winnie was a Canadian black bear that was held at the London Zoo, a place that the family frequented often. Christopher Robin was fixated on the bear. Winnie was in turn named for the city of Winnipeg, Canada, the hometown of Harry Colebourn, the man who brought her to England at the start of World War I.
While in the books an explanation is offered for how the “Pooh” made it into Winnie-the-Pooh’s name – from an incident in which his arms were too stiff and he had to constantly blow to keep flies from landing on his nose – the actual inspiration came again from the real Christopher Robin who had become enthralled with a goose named Pooh while on vacation.
Christopher Robin’s other stuffed animals were also used as inspiration for Milne’s books- Tigger, Kanga, Eeyore, and Piglet. These toys seem quaint by today’s standards, having been purchased at Harrods for the young Christopher Robin in the early ’20s.
Some of the toys have patches in very conspicuous places – showing the lifetime of love they received from Christopher Robin and a traveling career afterwards to boot. The group was sent abroad on tour by Milne in the ’40s and then ultimately donated to the New York Public Library in 1987 and they are still on display at the Children’s Center at 42nd Street in New York City. The lot were restored recently, though the patch on Pooh’s right foot remains as prominent as ever.
And if you’re now wondering why the Pooh Bear we know from books and movies doesn’t match up with Christopher Robin’s stuffed bear, there is a very good explanation for that. Illustrator E.H. Shepard used his own childhood bear, Growler, for the model instead of Christopher Robin’s bear.
The real Christopher Robin spent may years in anguish for the fantasy boy his father created and which he had to play the part of on a regular basis. He was resentful that his mother ended up dressing him to match the illustrations by E.H. Shepard instead of the other way around. What’s worse is that later at boarding school Christopher Robin was teased mercilessly about his father’s character. And he didn’t make peace with being recognized as the namesake for everyone’s favorite books until late in life, despite becoming a book seller which put him in constant contact with fans.
The Winnie-the-Pooh we know today is less about hyphens and more about animated adventures and it would take two business-minded widows to make that happen.
Walt Disney acquired the rights to the series only in 1961 even though he had been trying to purchase rights since the ’30s. Disney only was able to do so after Milne’s death when his widow, Daphne, licensed certain rights. That same year the widow to Milne publishing agent Stephen Slessinger, Shirley, also sold what rights her husband had acquired from Milne in the ’20s.
With both of these stones in place, Disney could begin production on the first animated Pooh film under the Disney umbrella, a franchise which today brings in an estimated $6 billion a year for the family entertainment company.