On Literary Censorship: A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh
In Which a world of very little brain bans a bear of very big heart
We all have that book. The one we treasure the most, that we beg incessantly for our parents to read to us over and over again, silly voices and all. The one that fueled our love of reading and gave us memories that feel fundamental to the way we interact with the world. For me, that book was A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Some of my earliest and most treasured memories are of reading about this silly old bear and his friends with my mom. Rather than having it read to me, we often read it together, alternating chapters and stories until one or both of us fell asleep. I grew up with the books and the shows and the movies, surrounded by paraphernalia and choosing a favorite, absorbing the lessons of friendship and life Christopher Robin and friends had to offer, mostly without realizing. It remains a dream of mine to see the original stuffed animals upon which the original illustrations are based in the New York Library. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that Winnie the Pooh has held a fairly high position (#22) in the list of most frequently banned books!
I was fortunate in that my parents never truly regulated what I had access to reading. The literary world was my oyster, and I took full advantage whenever I could. If I did not understand a word or idea I could simply go to my mom for help and answers. I hardly ever met a book I did not devour with reckless abandon, and so it was strange to me when I first encountered the concept of adults having impassioned feelings about the banning of books because of the things they were thought to contain. How could we preach against such atrocities as the burning of books during major world wars and then try to commit the very same act in a more tasteful wrapping on a daily basis? And what did the stuffed bear I kept around my house in so many different forms do to deserve such vitriol?
Many different iterations of Pooh have been banned or challenged, and for wildly disparate and nonsensical reasons. Most recently the film Christopher Robin — that movie aimed at both children and adults who grew up with the material, determined to remind us all of the importance of relaxing and remembering to do Nothing every once in a while — was banned in China because some internet trolls compared the beloved bear to the country’s president. The book was banned in Russia in 2009 after a known political extremist was found to have an illustration of Pooh Bear wearing a swastika in his possession. Lest Americans feel left out, a parent group in Kansas set out to ban the beloved book around 2006 because talking animals are a “religious abomination” and an affront to God. A very chill country we’ve got here.
Setting aside the worldwide political strife a stuffed bear can cause, I am once again left to wonder if any parent who embarks upon a crusade to ban a children’s book has ever, in fact, spoken to a single child, much less read the material they seek to protect from. Kids making up adventures with their beloved stuffed animals and/or dolls is a perfectly ordinary part of growing up, an exercise in imagination any adult connected to a child’s orbit can get pulled into at any time. In the mind of a child, everything has a voice and a life of its own, if only you’re able to catch it in the right light. So why, then, do adults continue to find it necessary to label things that mirror activities kids are already doing in life — like adventuring in the wilderness with their most beloved inanimate friends — as an “affront to God” and attempt to rip them away? Even the most cursory glance at the Winnie the Pooh stories will place such adults firmly in the category of the fun-smothering, fear-striking Heffalumps and Woozles.
We may laugh at such bans and reasonings now, but 2006 wasn’t so long ago, and anthropomorphic animals-as-religious-affront is a fairly common banning citation (we will, in fact, see it again next week with Alice in Wonderland, among many another wild reasons). The paradox of Pooh is such that it can be both beloved and reviled all at once. That bear and his friends remains a staple of any number of baby showers, all while being the target of the pearl-clutchers who hide behind the idea of “protecting the children”, when in truth they are hardly thinking of the children at all. The world is a complex and mysterious place, and humanity often turns itself on mental gymnastics that, to most of us, make no sense at all.
The book inspired by and for children, filled to the brim with simple stories about a silly bear going on adventures with his friends, doing good deeds and eating honey along the way, is both an escape and elixir to the harshness of the world outside it. It is perhaps a testament to Milne’s abilities that he should be able to craft such an idyllic and lasting world amid the strife immediately following WWI…or it could simply be that his son’s imagination inspired him so that he felt compelled to form a world through the eyes of a child untouched by the horrors adults inflict on one another. Even within the text it is a thing meant to be shared, a conversation meant to be had between parent and child in front of a fire before bath and bedtime. I do not wish to put words or ideas into Milne’s mouth or pen; all we know of the birth of Winnie the Pooh is that he made them up for his son, who exhilarated him simply by existing.
A small note about the legacy of Winnie the Pooh and the idea of continuing media targeted at original audiences (aka the creation of things like Christopher Robin).
Banned or not, beloved stories leave an impact on us for the rest of our lives. 2018’s Christopher Robin is just one example of such a story evolving with us, taking us by the hand and reassuring us that there is still a field out there for us to play in if only we know where to look. It takes us back to the world of Christopher Robin and friends years after he has left the Hundred Acre Wood. Now an adult with family and a demanding career of his own, Christopher encounters Pooh, who has gone searching for him to help him save his friends and his home, helping him to return to his inner child along the way.
The whole movie is geared toward adults who spend their entire days swallowed so entirely by the demands of their jobs that they forget the importance of living their lives and developing connections with the people who are meant to matter most to them, and chock full of the adorable and sage wisdom of a silly old bear who can see right through to the goodness of your heart. I went to the theater to see it with my mom when it released, and it is now a staple comfort film when I’m feeling burned out from the pressures of a world that seems to have forgotten the value of doing nothing some of the time. I do my best to maintain a pretty strict work-life balance, but it’s always nice to be backed up by my favorite bear.