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A tale of two Winnies

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When I was on the Caldecott committee, we were strict about following the rule that said we couldn’t discuss books published in other years, even if we were tempted to compare a book to its creator’s previous titles. But we certainly DID compare similar nominated books. In our year there were several books with similar plots, similar themes, or similar characters, and we found it helpful to discuss them together. But we did not have two information books about the very same subject.

I’m guessing that this year’s committee will be discussing two books about Winnie. In case you don’t know the story, she was a black bear cub rescued by Harry Colebourn, a Canadian soldier on his way to the front during World War I. A few years later, he donated her to the London Zoo, and a certain Christopher Robin Milne saw her there. The rest is children’s lit history.

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker and illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss was published back in January. Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall was published this October.

The first one is a straightforward picture book about an unusual subject. Voss’s watercolors are especially good at capturing the humor in the scenes showing Winnie’s time with the soldiers. He has an easy caricature-like style reminiscent of Robert McCloskey, drawing realistically adorable animals, while his people have slightly exaggerated features and postures. The text is necessarily fragmented because what is known about Winnie comes from a handful of intermittent sources (Colebourne’s diary, zoo records). It’s a good book, worthy of attention.

Then there is Finding Winnie. At the end of the book we learn that author Mattick is actually Harry Colebourn’s great-granddaughter, which probably gave her a leg up on finding primary source material. She structures her story in a way that allows the gaps in our knowledge of Harry and Winnie to become organic. We see a mother telling a bedtime story to a small boy, Cole, who has requested a true story about a bear.

Cole and his mother are shown in simple pen-and-ink sidebars while the events in the story get full bleed watercolors dominating each spread. Whenever Cole interrupts, we lose the flow of the bear story for a moment, but it works to the book’s advantage. The story of Harry and Winnie ends and the mother starts a second bear story, this time about Christopher Robin. This is a much easier way to deal with the missing time between Winnie’s arrival at the zoo and Christopher’s first visit to her. Finally, at the end, the family connection is revealed, including the news that little Cole was named after his great-great-grandfather.

What about Sophie Blackall’s work on this book? I think the committee will be hooked from the start. As we all know, Caldecott committees love endpapers, so let’s see what she does here. At the start, they show the lush Canadian woodland where Winnie’s life began. Normally, when the front and back endpapers are not identical, they are connected to each other, showing scenes depicting the beginning and end of the story in a similar style. Instead, the final endpapers here are part of the final section of the book: what looks like an actual scrapbook with photos and clippings about Winnie. A more obvious choice might have been to show Christopher Robin at the zoo, or even Cole and his mother walking in the woods today. I would guess that they ran out of pages and made the decision to give the backmatter photo album those last two pages. After all, picture books have to conform to the economics of book publishing, which means that most books need to be a multiple of 16 or 8 pages. Or maybe this was a well-thought-out decision, beginning as a fictional bedtime story and ending as a tale from one family’s history. Yeah, that works. I’ll opt for that reason because I find this book so likable.

Blackall’s art in this book feels cozy, despite the presence of war and soldiers. Most of the spreads use a palette of subdued browns, pinks, and greens. A few spreads break out of this limited palette, most notably a long view of the troop ship crossing the Atlantic under a bright red sunset with Winnie standing at the bow of the ship à la Leo and Kate in Titanic. When an illustrator makes a bold choice like this, I stop and wonder why. What effect was she going for? Does it help the story move forward? I can think of a few reasons, like foreshadowing war, but since we don’t really see any fighting here, my best guess is that it helps the pacing. It certainly made me stop and look for longer than I would have if we’d seen a paler, less arresting sky. I’m not sure, but it works for me.

What I do know is that all the elements of this book collaborate perfectly. The elements — text, art, design — work together seamlessly, and no one element upstages another. It’s a bedtime story and an information book: not a common combination. Blackall’s contributions help to glue the individual threads together while still keeping them distinct. The bear in Canada story, the mother and boy at bedtime, and Christopher Robin at the zoo.

One of the comments about Blackall’s A Fine Dessert wondered whether the committee would be comparing Winnie and Dessert. I say, Yes, absolutely. They will compare the two Winnies AND the two Blackalls. My own hunch is that, given all the concerns about A Fine Dessert, Blackall’s best chance at a Caldecott this year will be Finding Winnie. And looking at the two Winnies side by side, I don’t think there’s much contest. Finding Winnie is the better book. But that’s just my opinion. How do you think these books stack up?

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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  1. My students have been all over both Winnie books this year, but in our Mock Caldecott conversations Blackall’s has been rising to the top. We especially appreciate the “easter egg” references to E.H. Shepard’s illustrations and the portrayal of Winnie as realistic but with almost-human body language (appropriate given our teddy bear associations). One element my students keep referencing in their reflections is how multiple settings are shown from the perspective of windows when Harry boards the train; readers can decipher how the entire train appeared by making sense of the space between frames. The familial theme is portrayed through the faded tree on Cole’s wall, the family tree displaying Cole’s relationship to Harry, and the photo album (which closes the story but also appears on the bedside table throughout). The pen-and-ink drawings (which appear amidst text in beige panels, textured at the edges to resemble the pages of a book) reinforce the literary concept too. I read the bright red sky and ships’ huge sizes/sharp edges as setting a fearful, intimidating mood and communicating the dangers ahead, which are reflected through diagonal lines drawing readers’ eyes downward on the next page. Visible water droplets on this image invite readers to consider the darker aspects of the soldiers’ experiences.

    Has anyone else read both of these books during storytimes or Mock Caldecotts? I’m interested to see other ideas people bring to the conversation.

  2. Beautifully done writeup, Lolly. I’ve just started using Finding Winnie in all my children’s literature workshops this year and tested it out with 3rd and 4th graders at a local NJ school last week. (They loved it and were amazed at the connections between what first seemed to be simply a mom’s bedtime story for her son, then became a family history, and and then made the leap to Winnie-the-Pooh, which they didn’t see coming.) It’s truly distinguished, I think, in the way it delivers a story within a story within a story, with so many tender surprises. You pointed out several things I hadn’t noticed on my own–though every time I look at it, I discover something new. I tear up every time I show the book–it’s so tender and personal. I liked Walker’s Winnie very much, but the skillful storytelling and the emotional impact of Mattick’s text paired with Sophie Blackall’s resonant watercolors makes it a more effective, wondrous, and memorable package.

  3. Susan Kusel says:

    It’s quite liberating to be able to comment- which I couldn’t do last year since I was on the Real Committee.

    I’m not going to comment on the books, since I haven’t gotten a chance to read “Winnie” but I did want to speak a bit to Lolly’s comment: “But we certainly did compare similar NOMINATED books” (Emphasis mine.) Yes, that’s definitely true, and you are allowed to compare books within the same year. But I think it’s unlikely, (although not impossible) given that each committee member has only seven precious nominations that two books on the same subject would get nominated… particularly since all of you are saying that one of the two books rises to the top. I think it’s more likely that the talk won’t happen at the table- but will be decided by the lack of nomination of one of the books.

  4. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    I wonder if the committee I was on — 2005, when we had something like 150 nominated books — was the reason for the rule change limiting the number of books that could be nominated. It was so hard to discuss all of them in the time we had. But we managed, and being able to compare similar books helped in the winnowing process. Susan, was it difficult to limit your personal nominations to just seven?

  5. Susan Kusel says:

    Lolly- yes. Impossible. Seven is a very small number compared to the hundreds and hundreds of books I read and studied so many times over the course of last year. A teeny tiny number. However, another rule change since 2005 I think, there are now three rounds of nominations instead of two: you have 3 nominations in October, 2 nominations in November and 2 in December. This gives you a chance to see what other people are nominating… hopefully they are putting in some of the titles you ran out of space for in your own nominations. 7 nominations x 15 people on the committee means a maximum of 105 nominations, but it is unlikely that every single nomination will be different. It’s more likely that there will be overlap and duplicate nominations and the number will be less than 105.

    But given the small number of nominations in the current rules, I think it is unlikely for a book to get to the table just for comparison purposes- unless a committee member really loves the second book or is willing to use a precious nomination to be sure the committee takes an extremely careful look at it. If a committee member wants to be sure the rest of the committee takes another look at it, they can also suggest it, which unlike nominations, doesn’t have limits.

  6. Susan Dailey says:

    In reference to Susan’s comment about not having both books nominated, I hope this isn’t true. While I find many admirable qualities to Blackall’s version, I actually prefer Voss’ slightly. Maybe it’s because it is more straightforward or maybe because I prefer a more realistic style. I love the spreads in Voss’ version where Harry is leaving Winnie at the zoo before and after the war. However, the image of Harry and Winnie’s foreheads pressed together in Blackall’s version is also powerful. Both are wonderful in my opinion and deserve consideration.

  7. Julie Corsaro says:

    I appreciate the insightful comments regarding the visual elements of the book. Regarding the final Caldecott discussion list prior to the recent procedural changes (around 2010 or so), every book that had been suggested for discussion throughout the year was eligible for the award at the start of the Midwinter Selection Meetings. (So, the final discussion list was made up of all the nominated books, plus the books that had been suggested for discussion but did not receive nominations). However, the increase in the number of awards (about 20 now) has meant that ALA’s Public Information Office needs to receive the names of the winners by 10 am on Sunday morning in order to have everything ready for the announcements on Monday morning. As a result, award committees no longer have all day Sunday to meet with a deadline of 6 pm. In addition to the abridged meeting schedule, most chairs reported that the award committees didn’t want to discuss the “suggested only” titles anyway, but still had to go through the list. To compensate for the loss, as it were, of the “suggested only” titles, the number of nominations per committee members were increased by one from 6 to 7. The feedback regarding these changes has been very positive.

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