Writing in the style of Pooh creator A A Milne, Jane Riordan offers Once There Was a Bear, a book which takes readers back to when Pooh was bought from Harrods for baby Christopher Robin and imagines the before stories of Pooh, Eeyore and Piglet for the first time.
The book, which has been illustrated by Mark Burgess in the style of E H Shepard, Winnie-the-Pooh’s original illustrator, follows Pooh and his friends on a number of outings, including one to London Zoo where Pooh meets his namesake, Winnipeg. The real-life Canadian bear – known as Winnie – was visited by A A Milne and his son, inspiring the name of the book’s much-loved character.
An official prequel, set between London and the Hundred Acre Wood, the book has been published by Farshore to mark the 95th anniversary of A A Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh stories which were first published in 1926.
The stories were an instant success and have never been out of print. To date, they have been translated into 72 languages. The stories remain some of the best loved works in children’s fiction, with Winnie-the-Pooh named both the UK’s best-loved children’s book (YouGov, 2014) and favourite childhood book character (The Reading Agency, 2016).
Jane has a strong pedigree in writing in the style of A A Milne, having created Winnie-the-Pooh Meets the Queen and the re-issue edition Winnie-the-Pooh Goes to London. She is author of many other books for children including Watch Out, Little Narwhal!, I am NOT a Sleepy Sloth and A Pudding for Christmas.
For Pooh’s Sussex fans, the great attraction is that at least half the book is set in Ashdown Forest, as Jane explains.
“I have worked for the publishers of Winnie the Pooh for many years I have been editing and publishing the Winnie the Pooh books for a long time and I have got a good relationship with the trustees of the Pooh property. We thought we could do something for the 95th anniversary and I came up with the idea of a prequel. I was asked to write a sample and I was very lucky to be chosen.
“It’s not the first time that we have been bold enough to do something like this. We produced a sequel many years ago, and that was a very bold moment, but it was very well received and it brought more people to the Winnie-the-Pooh books which is essentially what we are trying to do with everything we do.
“For me in writing this the starting point was the original books because I knew those books so well. I knew them back to front and the voice in them rings in my ears all the time which is obviously an enormous help. I did some research finding a bit more about Christopher Robin’s life and about Winnie-the-Pooh’s life before the stories.
“We know that Winnie the Pooh was bought from Harrods and we know that Christopher Robin loved to go to London Zoo. The early stories in the book are based in London and then of course I had to bring the stories to Sussex, to Ashdown Forest. It is a wonderful magical place and I think a lot of it really has to do with the beautiful way that the original illustrations captured Ashdown Forest. When you go to the forest it is recognisable so much from the illustrations. It is unchanged. It is such a wild place with open spaces and with wooded areas. I was there a couple of weeks ago with some local school children and we were building dens and we just had a wonderful time.
“I am sure that the forest must have been a big part of what inspired Milne when he spent time there playing with Christopher Robin 95 years ago, and we also know that the illustrator took his son to Ashdown Forest.
“ It was very special place for both of them and their children.”
And so it is easy to see why Pooh remains so popular to this day.
“I think you get a great sense of the freedom in the books, of these characters playing outside with no adults controlling them, just playing out in the woodland, and I think that that is a freedom that perhaps resonates at the moment after the pandemic, after we have all been shut in. I know that for me it was really magical to go to Ashdown Forest and to be able to read my stories outdoors with a group of children.
Jane can’t remember a time when Winnie The Pooh wasn’t in her life.
“I remember the books being read to me as a child, and Pooh Sticks was something that I played. My sister and I would play it very gently and when the big boy cousins came it was a little bit less gentle perhaps! And I think now it is that wonderful crossgenerational appeal. What I really love is the fact that the generations, the different generations, can get together so easily to enjoy these stories – the adults who have known them for so many years and the children who are hearing them for the first time.”