by Sam Juliano
Similar statues stand in Winnipeg, Canada and in London, England, depicting a World War I soldier named Harry Colebourn holding hands with a bear cub. Though a seemingly innocuous memorial of wartime camaraderie between a man and animal, these physical homages are iconic in scope and significance, representing as they do the real-life inspiration for one of children literature’s most beloved characters. Lindsay Mattick and Sophie Blackall’s Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear is a kind of story-within-a-story-within-a-story, but for Winnie the Pooh fans it is a historical godsend, with none other than a descendant of Colebourn penning the story of how a Canadian serviceman found a bear and of the narrative circumstances that led to its taking up residence in the London Zoo, where it became the real-life model for a fictional character extraordinaire. Mattick tells the story as someone who is a kindred spirit with this material, using the original story of Harry as a device to amuse and enrich the life of her own son, while tying together the various humanist strands that have made the Winnie-the-Pooh story so endlessly captivating. Malick’s storytelling skills are considerable, and she uses dialogue effectively to bridge together the past and present. One can’t help but be stirred by this kind of Fern and Wilbur relationship, though much like E. B. White’s masterpiece there is an eventual realization that a final home is dictated by what’s best for the new tenant. For those who are familiar with the story there are some marvelous details to relish, for those in the dark, this is really quite the treat.
In basic terms the narrative begins in western Canada where a young man named Harry travels east on a train as a new World War I recruit. He buys a bear cub at a train station, and much to the exasperation of his superiors, brings him with him on basic training, and overseas. The bear grows but remains loyal and affectionate. When potential battles loom, Harry realizes – though is devastated by the decision – that Winnie must remain at the London Zoo. The second, shorter story presents the young child, Christopher Robin Milne who subsequently befriended Winnie at the zoo. His father, A.A. Milne, who brought the boy on his visits turns out to be the author of Winnie the Pooh. The entire book is framed as a real-life reading from Ms. Mattick to her son Cole.
Blackall’s art in Finding Winnie is nothing short of breathtaking. Her soft, deeply textured watercolor and ink illustrations are full-bodied and expansive, befitting the globe trotting, practically larger than life subject. The illustrator has never been shy to take on marathon assignments and her work for this book is apparently the culmination of committed multi-session creativity. Blackall wastes no time in announcing her intentions with a bold and handsome front cover of the bear in everyone’s heart on the boot of her benefactor opposite a yellow and tan diamond design. The opening end papers and dedication/title page spread are set in the wooded enclave where the future Winnie was born and climbed trees. The titular typography in mahogany and brown is in itself a feast for the eyes. After a full color bookended reminder of the source and participants in the story, which is noted for the clothes design, the dreamy change of setting concurrent with the start of the story, and a clue to the story’s denouement lying on a bedroom table, we see Harry, a veterinarian befriending a horse in an arresting forefront close-up, complimented by a blue-white wintry sky. The train departure and cross continental trip recalls in illustrative terms Brian Floca’s Caldecott Medal winning Locomotive of two years ago, though Blackall’s muted colors by contrast convey a subtle reminder of the somber task at hand. A wonderful touch throughout the book are the mini circular pencil drawings that continue to frame the story as one told from mother to son, complete with corresponding emotions. Cole is a bit disgruntled to learn that a man on the train platform at White River, Ontario is holding on to a baby, but soon finds up it is a bear cub. The half dozen vignettes chronicling Harry’s indecision and final (successful) offer of twenty dollars for the cub convey a man governed by his heart, unable to set combat the deep rooted affection engulfing him, are delightful, noted for the pinkish flesh tones for a man in emotional turmoil. The lineup of the men on the train presents a veritable cast of characters, some with pointed noses, others bewildered, or droll, adding up to quite the humorous fraternity.
The curving path of soldiers carrying vegetables to our new celebrity evokes to some degree Marcia Brown’s classic Stone Soup, but coupled with the opposite panel depiction of other recruits watching Winnie enjoying her dessert, a bottle of milk the mood is decidedly comedic. The airily exquisite pastel toned depictions of an army camp, with white tents, outside mess hall and horses, and the special talent of the growing bear to find items “hidden” on the grounds give Blackall the opportunity to strut her stuff, and she delivers magnificently much as she does in subsequent tapestries of soldier on horse on cliff overlooking exquisite autumnal foliage and a sublime red-tinted oceanic spread of ships at dusk -including Winnie on starboard- heading across the Atlantic. A far more austere single page spread of soldiers holding rifles, walking in a disciplined line during training through mud evokes All Quiet on the Western Front, though the opposite panel shows Winnie’s vigorous antics as a brigade mascot in spirited watercolor. After another trial of conscience (the head to head meeting of the minds is irresistible) Harry escorts Winnie by car over the embroidered English countryside en route to the London Zoo, where Blackall paints a deeply poignant scene of separation amidst a tunnel of departure and weeping vines. In a sweeping shape-infused overhead canvas well worthy of Ani or Peter Spier, Blackhall works in miniature to afford the reader a fascinating overview of the place where a legend was born, even specifying the bear’s precise habitat.
Blackall’s spread of the little boy who was actually the son of eventual author A. A. Milne, is a glorious bright and leafy transitional tapestry featuring the stuffed animal that was soon to capture the hearts of many. Another three-quarter double spread pictures Winnie and the boy and his father making first contact at the pen visualized in warm pink, and the first piggy bank contact in a bonding brown-pink with a compositionally strategic pink and yellow leaf small tree in the foreground. A wonderful family tree documenting the line from Harry to the great-granddaughter who wrote Finding Winnie shows Blackall paying unwitting homage to one of her own previous efforts, but again with pastel elegance. The last few pages are lovingly mounted scrapbook photos and captions which the author had access to, including a recent capture of mother and son in 2013. Much like the introductory end papers, these continue and conclude the book. The brown base is perfectly chosen. The back cover shows the fictional Winnie-the-Pooh and adoring caretaker, in the same luminous design as the front.
Finding Winnie represents Blackall at her finest, and by any barometer of measurement this elegiac, moving and uplifting work is the one of the very best picture books of 2015. There can be no doubt this has been getting a lot of mileage on the desks of the committee members, the only question remaining is could this be the one?
Note: This is the twenty-ninth review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.