The House at Pooh Corner

I read that Posingford Bridge, otherwise known as Poohsticks Bridge, was up for sale. Located in Ashdown Forest in England, it was a place where author A.A. Milne and his son, the real-life Christopher Robin, would go to play a game they called Pooh Sticks. It is the simplest of games. You put a stick in the water upstream, then go to the other side and watch it comew3 out from under the bridge and sail away. The game appears in the Winnie the Pooh stories.

I played Pooh Sticks with my sons on the bridge at our local library, and we read all the Pooh books. I still had my own childhood copies of the Milne books and some newer simplified versions for younger readers.

Pooh’s birthday just passed on August 21st. It is also the real Christopher Robin’s birthday. What a nice coincidence. The stories about Christopher Robin and his toys (His toy Edward Bear became Winnie the Pooh in the books) that became his father’s stories seem like such a nice series of tales. I made up stories about Peter Rabbit and his friends and family for my oldest son at bedtime. For my younger son, the stories were about Curious George. The stories closely paralleled my sons’ lives day to day., and I’m sure I was partially inspired to do this by what I imagined had happened in the Milne household between father and son.

But the real-life Christopher Robin and his father didn’t have as loving a relationship as Pooh and Christopher. Alan Alexander Milne was not Pooh or Piglet. Definitely not Tigger. Maybe a little bit Eeyore. He wasn’t warm and snuggly and was often absent from their home. His mother dressed him in “girlish” clothes and kept his hair very long – both styles that didn’t help him in his earliest school days.

Christopher Robin also had a love-hate relationship with his fictional version. That was true when the books became famous and he was maturing and it continued into adulthood.

Christopher wrote a memoir, The Enchanted Places, and in that book he writes, “At home I still liked him, indeed felt at times quite proud that I shared his name and was able to bask in some of his glory. At school, however, I began to dislike him, and I found myself disliking him more and more the older I got.”

Theirs is not a very happy story and though he did come to terms with his relationships with his father and the character, it didn’t happen until after his father’s death.

Christopher Robin Milne.jpg
Christopher and Edward Bear, 1928, Fair use, Link

The fourth and final Pooh title is The House at Pooh Corner, published in 1928 when Christopher was 8 years old. The entire series of books was a bestseller worldwide by then. The more popular the books, the more Christopher disliked them. He was teased at school and it was no better when he was put into boarding school at age 9.

He saw his father on school breaks, but when he went on to Cambridge University and served in World War II, their relationship was distanced physically and emotionally. After the war, he finished his degree and in his mid-twenties didn’t know quite what to do with his life.

Christopher married at age 27 his first cousin, Lesley. His parents did not approve. The couple moved to Dartmouth and opened The Harbour Bookshop together.

Though he occasionally visited his father when the elder Milne became ill, after his father died in 1956, Christopher never returned to Cotchford Farm. The farm near the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex was a place the family went on holidays from London. It is the real life Hundred Acre Woods of the books and that’s where Pooh’s walnut tree home and the bridge were located.

His mother sold the farm and his father’s personal possessions, and Christopher wanted no part of his father’s things or royalties from the books. Sadly, after Alan’s death, his mother, Daphne Milne, had almost no contact with her only child and did not see him at all during the last 15 years of her life. She refused to see him on her deathbed.

A few months after his father’s death, Christopher and Lesley had a daughter Clare. She was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy but lived into her mid-50s.

Christopher Milne gave the original stuffed animals that inspired the Pooh characters – Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, and Kanga – to the book series editor, who in turn donated them to the New York Public Library. Christopher did not like the commercialization of the Pooh books and characters.

Christopher Milne died in April 1996 at age 75. He had lived with myasthenia gravis for some years.

In the film, Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017) there is a version (not completely accurate) of his relationship with his father that was “inspired” by the more accurate book Goodbye Christopher Robin: A. A. Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh. There is also a Disney live-action/animation hybrid film “biography,” Christopher Robin, in which the adult Christopher encounters Pooh and relives some of the best parts of his childhood.

The two Pooh novels are Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. Milne also wrote two poetry collections, Now We Are Six (as in being 6 years old) and When We Were Very Young, which features the very first appearance of Pooh.

The four books are available as a collection.

Reading Aloud

Now that I have a grandchild and another one about to arrive, I’m reading aloud to children again. I did it with my own sons but in my 25 years of teaching in K-12 (and even sometimes in my undergraduate and graduate classes) I would often read to my students. My draft title for this piece was “Reading to Children” but I realized that it is really about reading aloud to anyone. Reading to the baby yet unborn and to the senior citizen in the nursing home or a patient in a hospital are all terrific things to do.

I enjoy reading out loud. I enjoyed it when I was a student in my post-kindergarten days when I could read. Not a good thing, but I didn’t have a lot of patience for my classmates who were not good readers. I would get in trouble because I read ahead and then didn’t know where we were in the book. I learned as a teacher that you have to let everyone read – the good, bad, and the average readers.

I was inspired to write today because of an excerpt I found online from The Art of Teaching Children: All I Learned from a Lifetime in the Classroom by Phillip Done.

He is writing about reading to the really young ones. as when you say “Boys and girls, please join me on the carpet” and read from a picture book holding it up for all to (sort of) see.

I never had the chance to read to a class of mostly non-readers, but I did get to do that one-on-one and one-on-two with my sons and with my granddaughter. But the advice he gives often applies to reading aloud to any age group. And as a big fan now of audiobooks, the best readers follow most of these suggestions too.

His book probably goes deeper into the research on reading but in brief, we know that “reading aloud stimulates the imagination and lets children explore people, places, times, and events beyond their own experience. It builds motivation and curiosity. When you read to kids, you are conditioning them to associate print with pleasure, whetting their appetite for reading, and fostering a lifelong love of books. Reading aloud also increases kids’ attending and listening skills.” They also learn what good writing sounds like and that will influence them as writers.

It really helps grow children’s vocabularies. H states that the average number of words in a picture book for children is around a thousand, so in a typical school year (around 185 days), if you read one book a day to your class, by the end of the school year they will have heard 185,000 words.

Reading aloud well requires “the voice of an actor, the timing of a playwright, the expressions of a mime, and the rhythm of a musician.” We don’t all have those talents, but we can all read with a better expression than some AI device (sorry Siri and Alexa and my GPS).

The best part of reading 1:1 is when the little ones start to ask questions about the story. Those interruptions probably aren’t a good thing in classrooms but when the audience is on your lap, it’s great. It shows they are paying attention and that their imagination is at work. I love hearing my son read to his daughter and ask questions like “Can you find the apple? How many ducks are there in the pond?” I did the same thing when I taught Dickens or Shakespeare just at a higher comprehension level.

There should be reactions from your audience – just like at any performance. Laughs, giggles, maybe a gasp, or an “oooh” when the llama finds its mama. No tears in the early years, but I saw those in my classroom sometimes. (I always read Johnny’s letter to Pony in The Outsiders aloud to get that emotional reaction.)

I used to have my “sophisticated” middle school students bring in a children’s book they loved as a kid that they thought had a “message” for grownups too. They had to read it aloud to the class – dramatically – and discuss the “theme” with their classmates. It was a good and not too threatening front-of-the-class experience. I was pleased that a number of students would connect their children’s books with something we had read in class. “I think that The Sneetches (Dr. Seuss) is a lot like what happens in Romeo and Juliet with the two families.”

I remember a girl who brought in another Dr, Seuss book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! She said, “My mom got this for me at the end of fifth grade when I graduated elementary school, but I think it applies to middle school or high school too.” Yes, yes, and for college grads, and people changing jobs, and someone starting retirement. No matter where you are in your life, there is still much to see and do. The possibilities are still pretty endless.

Now, get your mat from your cubby, and let’s all take a little nap and dream about all those things.

Young Adult

Young adult fiction (YA) is defined as a category of fiction written for readers from 12 to 18 years of age and while the genre is targeted at adolescents, surveys show that approximately half of YA readers are adults. Some authors write with that age group in mind, but many books with characters in that age group become thought of as YA literature even if the author did not intend that to be the audience. That is the case with many popular titles taught in middle and high schools, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, and Of Mice and Men.

As a secondary school teacher, I never really saw a great difference in the styles of YA and adult literature other than the themes. A lot of YA novels address friendship, first love, relationships, and identity. Some might be classified as problem novels or coming-of-age novels.

Young adult fiction was developed to make a transition between children’s novels and adult literature. There were a good number of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century authors who wrote novels that appealed to the YA age group. Some of these authors – Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, JM Barrie, L. Frank Baum, Astrid Lindgren, C.S. Lewis – may have had younger readers in mind but probably hoped for a wider audience than 12-18 year-olds. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, published in the 1930s, was an early effort to target a specific YA audience. But schools and librarians did not accept books for teenagers as a genre until the second half of the twentieth century.

Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) was written for adults but gained a huge adolescent popularity, though few schools taught it at that time and some schools and libraries banned it. Holden Caulfield’s angst and alienation still are a part of many YA novels.

I read that A Wrinkle in Time, written by Madeleine L’Engle in 1960, received over 26 rejections before publication in 1962, at least partly because it was hard to label as a children’s or adult’s book. It is also science-fiction with a teenage girl protagonist and sci-fi was targeted at males.

Many critics point to the modern classification of young-adult fiction as starting with S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders in 1967. It was the first novel specifically marketed for young adults. Hinton is Susan Hinton and the S.E. was because her publisher though a book that featured tough, male characters wouldn’t be read by boys if they knew a girl had written it. And Hinton was a girl when she wrote it. She wrote it while she was still in high school which is why it feels true to teens.

The cast of The Outsiders (19xxxxxxxxxxxxx

I taught The Outsiders many times and it never failed to connect to students, even reluctant readers. It is a truer, darker side of adolescent life that didn’t appear in novels of that time that featured adolescent characters. It is not a nostalgic story. Adults, including parents, are almost non-existent in the book. There is violence and death.

When I was 13, I read my sister’s copy of Fifteen by Beverly Clearly hoping to understand what being a teenager was all about – especially understanding girls. That and other books on my sister’s shelf and that the librarians pointed me at were nothing like Hinton’s writing. They were written by adults looking back. Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and things in the Scholastic books order form that we got in class were fun but tame. When I was 14, I ordered the new novel, The Outsiders, from Scholastic, her publisher. She had submitted it to them because it was where she ordered books in school too.

Though the content of Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders seems very mild compared to content of movies and TV shows available to children and teens today, those books and many others are still included in the nationwide wave of book bans that continues to move from libraries and school reading lists works that acknowledge the existence of racism, gender identities, gay people, sex, profanity, religion, fantasy, and other topics and themes.

Hinton’s first novel is about two feuding groups of teenagers in an economically segregated city based on her own Tulsa life (though students always assumed it was New York or some other big urban center). Hinton said in an interview that she wrote the book because she was “surrounded by teens and I couldn’t see anything going on in those books that had anything to do with real life.”

Eventually, I taught the novel together with Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story and they all swirled together in the classroom and in our discussions. Which kid in Tulsa reminds you of Benvolio in Verona? Compare the rumbles in the three stories.

Between 1990 and 1999, The Outsiders was (according to the ALA), the 38th most frequently challenged book in the U.S. Imagine how shocking the number one book must have been. Actually, number one was Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories, usually because it has scary illustrations.

What were the objections to Hinton’s novel? Sone people objected to the smoking, violence, and the absent parents, broken homes, single-parent households and some drug and alcohol references.

I don’t remember any references to something else that I have discovered has been found between the lines more recently. These young men, like Pony and Johnny, who spent the night curled up together in a lot or an abandoned church were seen as a gay romance. Ah yes, like Ishmael and Queequeg in that inn before going to get the white whale. Trigger warnings all over the place, including for scenes where someone pulls the trigger on a revolver.

I don’t know how I would teach any literature in these times.

E.B. White had 18 nieces and nephews who asked him to tell stories, so he started writing some down. In a dream, a story about a mouse-boy with human parents came to him. He wrote Stuart Little in 1945, and seven years later Charlotte’s Web. The latter book has sold more than 45 million copies.

White was not a children’s author and he didn’t really write with children in mind. He said, “Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.”

For me, the line between much of children’s literature, young adult and adult literature isn’t much of a line. The Alice adventures in Wonderland may be the best examples. I know children like the stories. I had YA students who loved them and saw other things in them. And there are lots of adults, me included, who have read them, read the annotated versions and dug deep into other aspects of them.

Young adult? Really?

This Jest Seems Infinite

I finished Infinite Jest. It took me five years. I’m proud that I kept at it and didn’t quit, but I am not happy that it took that long or that I am in a minority of readers who didn’t enjoy it.

The novel is David Foster Wallace’s most famous work. It was published in 1996 and was a best-seller and widely praised. It is more than 1,000 pages long. It has 100 pages of footnotes.

The only thing I had read by Wallace before was his collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, which I liked.  Infinite Jest is nothing like those essays.

hatI have a few friends who rate it as one of their favorites and a few more people I know who were unable to finish reading it.  I’m not alone as shown by the fact that you can buy hats and t-shirts stating that you’re in that group (seen above). 

I never got past page 100 in the book and had to return it to the library. I might not have ever picked it up again but I was gifted some Audible books and so I figured I can certainly make it through the other 900 pages as an audiobook.  Sadly, the Audible version didn’t make things much easier.

I started reading in January 2017 and finished in January 2022. Now, that it was a solid five years of reading and listening. According to my Goodreads account, there were more than 200 other books I read during that time period. 

I didn’t enjoy the story or footnotes at all, so what compelleded me to keep going?  I’m not sure. I wrote earlier about the same situation with a John Irving novel and Irving is an author I very much enjoy reading. But it is very rare for me to walk out on a movie or give up on a book once I start reading.

The novel’s structure is unconventional and it includes endnotes (388, including some that have their own footnotes). The novel’s primary locations are the Enfield Tennis Academy (E.T.A.) and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House which are near each other in suburban Boston, Massachusetts.

I am hard-pressed to summarize a plot. The multiple narratives are somewhat connected via a film, also called Infinite Jest, and sometimes known as “the Entertainment.”

I suppose I kept picking up on the novel because some friends liked it so much and the very positive reviews. It made TIME magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.  

The novel’s title is from Hamlet in that famous scene when Hamlet holds the skull of the court jester, Yorick, and says, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!” 

Hamlet is a sad man. Lots of death in that play. Not a lot of joy in Infinite Jest or Wallace either. David Foster Wallace battled devastating depression his whole life and committed suicide in 2008. His unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011. I don’t think I’ll start that one.

Call Me Ishmael

Moby-Dick

November 14, 1851: Moby-Dick is published in New York. It is 635 pages. The previous month, a censored version of the novel had been published in London. It was in three volumes and titled The Whale.

November is a good month to read the novel. It’s an anniversary and it is the month the story begins.

You don’t have to read the whole novel. How about one chapter?

  • Chapter 9: The Sermon. Father Mapple delivers a sermon to a congregation of sailors, sailors’ wives, and widows in the New Bedford Whalers’ Chapel. Ishmael and Queequeg are there. Mapple reads a hymn about Jonah – that Biblical character who was swallowed by a hat else?] a WHALE:
  • Chapter 28: Ahab. This is the Captain’s first appearance after 27 chapters. The crew hadn’t seen him yet either. He doesn’t speak here.
  • Chapter 30: The Pipe is only a page long.
  • Chapter 32- Cetology Some people suggest you skip the interchapter. I have read the book cover to cover and also read just the interchapters cover to cover. I like all the whale and whaling knowledge.
  • Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle. The mythology of the sailor through ones from different lands and cultures.
  • Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale
  • Chapter 54: The Town-Ho’s Story  Melville tells a different story and foreshadows the end of his novel.
  • Chapter 70 – The Sphinx
  • Chapter 89: Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish
  • Chapter 114- The Glider
  • Chapter 125: The Log and the Line. Ahab and his cabin boy understand each other. Because they are both crazy.

Maybe you should just open the book at random and read that chapter.

Moby-Dick continues to be a novel that everyone has heard of and can give you a 25-word book report even if they never read it.

If you’re not going to pick up the novel, at least read the opening passage.

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”

I took to the sea this month. I visited a friend who lives a very short walk from the Atlantic Ocean because it was “a damp, drizzly November in my soul” and I didn’t want to start “knocking people’s hats off.” I didn’t take to the ship. I was still a landlubber but I was there.

 

Writing About Writing

There are almost as many books about writing as there are writers who have published books. Well, maybe not quite that many books on writing but there are a lot of them.

Here are three that are on my shelf.

Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books. Obviously, he knows how to write what sells, but does that mean he can tell you how to write? I had my doubts when someone recommended and handed this book to me. It very pleasantly surprised me.

There are real insights into the creative process. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has some of his life story mixed in with what he has learned. I like the section on his editing process. It also has a good reading list if you want to go deeper.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (also available as an audiobook) is also about writing and about being a writer. The two things are inextricably connected.

Readers of the book often say they like her acceptance of “sh@#ty first drafts” in order to get to “good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” This book is often humorous but it takes writing very seriously.

I read the book first 25 years ago after having been writing for much longer but still not allowing myself to feel like I was a Writer.

The odd title is explained in this way: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

That is good general advice about doing many things – weeding the garden, cleaning out the garage, hiking a long trail, writing a poem.

If a more stern approach is needed to get you writing, then On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction might be a better choice. Non-fiction is sometimes viewed as “more serious” than fiction or poetry. That is not true, but William Zinsser’s approach is more instruction manual. It is rarely funny – even in a chapter about writing humor. (I discovered in a college course on humor that humor is not comedy and often not funny in the sense of laughter.

I’m making this book sound too stern. Zinsser is a writer, editor and teacher and all three show in the book. He began as a newspaper writer, went on to magazines and has written books on baseball, music, travel, and those and other genres are covered, including people, places, science, technology, business, sports, the arts and memoir.

I read this book before using it as a text in teaching a writing course. It is probably consider a classic by now, much like The Elements of Style which was standard book to have on the syllabus fifty years ago.

If there is any of the writer’s life that he mixes with writing, it might be that he feels that “clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”

The best advice to become a better writer is still two simple things: read widely and often, especially in the genre you want to write; stop reading and start writing.