A special edition of My Life in Picture Books to celebrate (admittedly a few months late) the 90th anniversary of Winnie-the-Pooh’s introduction*!
Some classic children’s books aren’t necessarily uplifting to read, like Mary Poppins (spoiler alert: in case you don’t know, the Disney version of the character is sugary-sweet by comparison to the real MP). Some classic children’s books are problematic due to racism or sexism or imperialism, like…well, anything written by Rudyard Kipling. Some classic children’s books are difficult to read aloud because of language or dialect issues, like The Wind in the Willows. Some require a LOT of background information, so much so that to read them to a modern child is to give line-by-line commentary, such as the Little House series or the All of a Kind Family series.
And some classic children’s books are every bit as sweet and charming and relate-able as you remembered from your own childhood, like Winnie-the-Pooh.
Here are a handful of vignettes from the classic books about the stuffed animals that live in a fictionalized version of Ashdown Forest that have become part of our personal Darmok in the Surton household:
1. “Really as blue and as bracing.” We use this phrase to mean “it was all it was cracked up to be” or “it was even more wonderful than I expected/remembered”.
Piglet wasn’t listening, he was so agog at the thought of seeing Christopher Robin’s blue braces again. He had only seen them once before, when he was much younger, and, being a little over-excited by them, had had to go to bed half an hour earlier than usual; and he had always wondered since if they were really as blue and as bracing as he had thought them.
2. “French word meaning bonhommy.” An exclamatory phrase used to explain that a word or phrase is difficult to define or untranslatable, or is so obvious a cognate or etymology that it stands for itself. Eeyore is perhaps the oldest inhabitant in the forest; he has the sarcastic and cynical attitude of a teenager at least, whereas the other characters behave like little kids. When the other animals forget Eeyore’s birthday and he is trying to get Pooh to ask why he’s upset, he is in rare form.
“Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”
“Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
“Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.”
“Oh!” said Pooh. He thought for a long time, and then asked, “What mulberry bush is that?”
“Bon-hommy,” went on Eeyore gloomily. “French word meaning bonhommy,” he explained. “I’m not complaining, but There It Is.”
3. “Aha!” The other animals kidnap baby Roo and leave Piglet in his place. Piglet tries desperately to carry out Rabbit’s plan (everyone would say aha! to Kanga so she understands that Roo has been kidnapped and will only be given back once she agrees to leave the forest forever). We use this phrase, and its repetition, to indicate that a Cunning Plan has come to fruition and we want other people to notice.
“Aha!” said Piglet, as well as he could after his Terrifying Journey. But it wasn’t a very good “Aha!” and Kanga didn’t seem to understand what it meant.
“Bath first,” said Kanga in a cheerful voice.
“Aha!” said Piglet again, looking round anxiously for the others. But the others weren’t there.
4. “I think the bees suspect something.” From one of Pooh’s most famous escapades, in which he dresses up as a cloud and rides a balloon up into the sky next to a beehive in an attempt to steal some honey. We use this phrase pretty much exactly as Pooh did– for indicating that someone has caught on.
After a little while, [Pooh] called down…
“I think the bees suspect something!”
“What sort of thing?”
“I don’t know. But something tells me that they’re suspicious!”
“Perhaps they think that you’re after their honey.”
“It may be that. You never can tell with bees.”
5. “Spotted or Herbaceous Backson.” A phrase used to stand in place of bullshitting. Poor Owl, who can’t really read or write but is far too proud to admit it, is presented with a note from Christopher Robin, who is just learning to write (“Gon out, backson. Bisy, backson. C.R.”), and tries to pretend he can both read and understand it.
“It is quite clear what has happened, my dear Rabbit,” he said. “Christopher Robin has gone out somewhere with Backson. He and Backson are busy together. Have you seen a Backson anywhere about in the Forest lately?”
“I don’t know,” said Rabbit. “That’s what I came to ask you. What are they like?”
“Well,” said Owl, “the Spotted or Herbaceous Backson is just a–”
“At least,” he said, “it’s really more of a–”
“Of course,” he said, “it depends on the–”
“Well,” said Owl, “the fact is,” he said, “I don’t know what they’re like,” said Owl frankly.
Many happy returns, silly old bear!
*While A A Milne wrote several stories and poems about childhood and his young son and even Edward Bear in the late 1910s and early 1920s, the first story about Winnie-the-Pooh was published in the Christmas Eve edition of a newspaper in 1925.