Winnie-the-Pooh died today. Or, rather, I mean his father died today. Not his real father mind you. And not actually this day, but on this day. Oh dear. I mean, on another day that is the same as this day. A different kind of same day. I mean. O bother.
A. A. Milne, the literary father of Winnie-the-Pooh, died 58 years ago on this day, January 31, 1956. He left behind a legacy of childhood innocence that has delighted generations of children, and adults, in many languages and cultures around the world. Thankfully, his literary progeny live on. You might have missed it, but January 18 was Winnie-the-Pooh Day in honor of Milne’s 1882 birthday.
I think it is safe to say that no other literary character in the past century is as deeply ingrained in our collective cultural psyche as the honey-loving bear of little brain. Perhaps it is because Pooh is a children’s storybook creation mined from the Milne family’s real life. Winnie-the-Pooh was the young Christopher Robin Milne’s real stuffed bear, just as his other animal friends—Piglet, Tigger, Eyore, and Kanga—were the boy’s stuffed playmates. And The Hundred Acre Wood was a real place in the Ashdown Forest area of Sussex, England, where the Milne family spent many happy years. Perhaps being made from the real made the pretend Pooh all the more real.
“The hardest part is what to leave behind… It’s time to let go.”
This post is not a history of Pooh, but rather a historical parable of sorts about innocence—its reality, its endurance, its loss. You see, on the same day that A. A. Milne died in England, a future generation was also being birthed there. As Mr. Milne passed quietly out of this world on that January 31, John Lydon came screaming into it. And no matter how innocent the baby boy might have been then, twenty years later that unspoiled infant would become Johnny Rotten, lead singer for the Sex Pistols. His groundbreaking British group would introduce the world to Punk Rock music, a thoroughly un-innocent musical form of screaming and swearing in musical rage against all things good. The Rock and Roll generation that began three days before Milne died, when Elvis Presley released his first hit song “Heartbreak Hotel,” would go on through baby Lydon born three days later to thoroughly reject innocence. And culture has never been quite the same.
Do you see the parable in those details of history? On January 31, 1956, the creator of perhaps the most enduring literary expression of cultural innocence died, and that same day the creator of perhaps the most influential musical expression of cultural un-innocence was born. It was a cosmic convergence of clashing cultures, a sentient snapshot of the inevitable ebbing and flowing of innocence. And here’s some irony to chew on along with it. In 2002, the London BBC ran a TV poll to determine who the British people thought were the “100 Greatest Britons” of all time. A. A. Milne didn’t even make the list. But John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, did. He came in at number 87. Oh stuff and bother.
“I used to believe in forever, but forever is too good to be true.”
It’s no big secret that innocence, especially for children, has taken a beating in the past half century. Culture tends to appreciate innocence for a time, but soon tires of it, kicks it to the side of the road, and runs off in pursuit of other ever-mutating expressions of un-innocence. Like an addict always in need of a stronger fix, culture rarely lingers long in the presence of purity. But innocence never goes away. It endures. It must endure.
Here’s my point (yes, I have one). Innocence is the natural state of a child’s heart. Not theological innocence, but rather an ideological innocence that simply acknowledges that the innocent choice is natural, good, and the most desirable. I believe all children, if unspoiled by culture and given the opportunity, will naturally desire and choose the sweeter offerings of cultural fruit—they will choose innocence and be nourished by its pure nectar. However, in the absence of truly innocent choices, a child will tend to choose the least un-innocent of whatever is offered, no matter how far the choices veer from innocence. And in that choosing an appetite for un-innocence can slowly and inevitably be fed and strengthened. Until there is no appetite for innocence. It happens in culture; it happens in children.
But it doesn’t have to happen in your children. If innocence in your child’s heart is fed, it will grow. If lesser choices are avoided, and good choices are offered regularly, you will strengthen and deepen your child’s appetite for innocence. And when your children are faced with lesser choices, that appetite for the good and innocent will be a protective hedge against the mediocre and the un-innocent. You cannot always be there to direct and protect your child as they grow older, but your values and wisdom can be there in the appetites that you cultivate in their hearts while they are young and impressionable.
So let me close with some innocent suggestions. If your children are young, do all that you can now to cultivate and strengthen their appetite for the good and the innocent. Keeping the un-innocent influences of culture out of your home is good, but not enough; you must pro-actively feed your young children on the pure fruits of innocence that are best served up through children’s literature, art, and poetry. Don’t think video will do the job. Video viewing encourages passive, not active, intake. It does not actively engage the imagination where values for innocence and goodness are incubated and grown. Video tends to feed the emotions; books, art, and poetry feed the mind and heart. Read books. Here are just a few, in no particular order, of our family’s favorite authors, illustrators, and books for cultivating an appetite for and heart of innocence:
- Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner (A. A. Milne)
- The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame)
- Beatrix Potter tales
- Brambly Hedge stories (Jill Barklem)
- James Herriot’s Treasury for Children (St. Martin’s Press)
- The Chronicles of Narnia (C. S. Lewis)
- Illustrated storybooks by Barbara Cooney
- Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny (Margaret Wise Brown)
- Golden Books illustrated by Eloise Wilkin
- Corgiville books by Tasha Tudor
- The Golden Books Treasury of Poetry (Louis Untermeyer)
- A Child’s Garden of Verses (Tasha Tudor, illustrator; Cooper Edens, compiler)
- The Child’s Story Bible (Catherine Vos)
- The Jesus Storybook Bible (Sally Lloyd-Jones)
“Rivers know this: There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
For a full discussion of the power of books and reading on a child’s heart and mind, you can’t do any better than Sarah Clarkson’s book, Read for the Heart: Whole Books for Wholehearted Families. For a bigger picture of how to create a WholeHearted home, read my book Educating the WholeHearted Child. You can find our books on WholeHeart.org and on Amazon.
by Clay Clarkson
Whole Heart Ministries
Keeping Faith in the Family
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Postscript of Unrelated but Relatively Interesting Historical Details: If you think of Pooh as just a nice little children’s story that Disney made famous, let me add some perspective. Milne released Winnie-the-Pooh, his first collection of Pooh stories, in 1926, followed by The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. In 1930, media mogul Stephen Slesinger licensed Winnie-the-Pooh, giving birth to the modern licensing industry. Less than two years later, in the depths of the Great Depression, Pooh was a $50-Million dollar industry ($650-Million in 2014 dollars). Walt Disney, who founded Walt Disney Studio the same year as Milne’s first Pooh book, was still getting his cartoon acts together and wouldn’t buy the Pooh licenses until 1961, after the death of Slesinger in 1953 and Milne three years later. Disney turned Pooh into a Hollywood star. Because A. A. Milne’s books were published after 1923, the first one will not enter the Public Domain until 2026. (Look for the Whole Heart Press Storyformed edition then.) The Disney derivative works, though, will be protected for many decades after that. Pooh is here to stay.