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Editorial: Into the Hundred Acre Wood

I was saddened to hear of the death of librarian and storyteller Ellin Greene in August. Ellin was my professor of children’s library work at Chicago, and taught me a core practice of the profession I hold as dear as any of Ranganathan’s Laws: “Get down on your knees,” she told us, in order to determine whether a library space “worked” for the children it was meant to serve.

Ellin’s wise words came back to me when I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts’ new show, running through the beginning of January 2019, “Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic.” Originally mounted at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and curated here by Meghan Melvin, the exhibition recognizes that children and grownups will be experiencing it on different levels, figuratively and literally. Adults will appreciate the grand collection, placed at grownup eye level, of A. A. Milne’s manuscript pages, Ernest Shepard’s sketches, and various editions of the Pooh books. Meanwhile, closer to the ground, little kids will enjoy ringing Owl’s doorbell (a.k.a. Eeyore’s tail), climbing Christopher Robin’s stair (halfway up, of course), and watching Poohsticks drift by on a virtual river while they stand on an actual bridge. The genius of the exhibit’s design is not only in its accommodation of adults and children, Pooh-fanciers and not, but also in its adherence to Milne and Shepard’s lo-fi aesthetic despite the hi-tech means of achieving it. Viewing the exhibit felt to me like a cozy wander through the Hundred Acre Wood.

While the main part of the show is devoted to Milne and Shepard and their Winnie-the-Pooh, Disney’s is also here, though in a separate room and strictly behind glass, lacking the immersive environment given to the real deal. Ah, gatekeeping — another core practice promulgated by Ellin (and Zena Sutherland), particularly when it came to Disney: not, they insisted, for the library. Nor for the MFA’s Hundred Acre Wood, and in this case I applaud the commitment to the original canon. But the inclusion, however set apart, of Disney artifacts as well as other versions and merchandising (via Milne and Shepard’s participation and otherwise) from down through the years says, “Yes, we know about these, too. He’s really had an impact, that silly old bear, hasn’t he?”

I couldn’t help noticing that the museum’s gift shop is happy to sell you both “Classic Pooh Plush” and Disney Pooh plush, reminding me of the way — and this was considered broadminded! — libraries began to include comic books, Stratemeyer Syndicate, and yes even Disney versions, etc., as get-’em-in-the-door companions to “real books.” (They were also not-unwelcome boons to circulation, and I wonder if the MFA shop is keeping a tally of which Pooh sells better.) The inclusion was there, but the distinction upheld: librarians could maintain that some books are more worth reading than other books but also hold that children could read whatever they wanted. I think this is a fair approximation of what Ellin and Zena believed, and I believe it’s an accurate assessment of what librarians today believe. Only the criteria change.

Gatekeepers of books for the young today, and if you’re reading this you are one: hold to the dream of whatever version of the Hundred Acre Wood is in your heart. Believing that some books are more worth reading than other books is how books get better. But do take a periodic genuflection to see how the world looks from down there: I’m guessing that Disney out-circulates Milne in libraries these days, and understanding why serves both children and books.

From the November/December 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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Comments

  1. Sheila Kelly Welch says:

    Thank you. Roger, for your editorial. I’ve been a gatekeeper within my own family concerning the original Pooh books. Our children — all adults now — know which silly old bear their ol’ mom loves. I’m sure your guess about the Disney version out distancing the originals in circulation is almost certainly correct. Authors are told to keep picture books short. Kids’ attention spans have shrunk along with their parents’ time and interest in reading a 20-minute story. I once mentioned the Milne books to an agent, and she said, “Those stories are so tedious.” OMG!

    Recently my husband of 50 years asked me to read aloud to him both Winnie- the -Pooh books. He’s a retired college librarian but somehow skipped over children’s literature. Now he knows all the characters and says his Eeyore voice is better than mine, and I agree. He knew that his request was just what I needed. Finally, we’ve discovered the secret of a long and loving relationship. “So that’s what Tiggers like!”

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