Yesterday, you will of course recall, was the day I went to Catherynne M. Valente’s event at the Brookline Booksmith and got to actually meet her and have her sign a large stack of books for me while I stammered out profuse thanks for her work. It was wonderful: I’ve never been so happy to be embarrassed in my life as when I finally stepped up to hand my books to the lovely and kind Cat Valente. As I stood there I thought, “If there’s anything as wonderful as being in a room just for book-lovers, I don’t know what it is.” Partly, of course, because book-lovers will leave you alone. They aren’t nosy and won’t talk at you just when you’re at a good part, and won’t be insulted if you flip through a book in their presence. They may smile and say, “I love that one, too,” but they’ll leave you your space. For the anxiety-prone, book parties are the best parties. (Also, they tend to be nice about kids.)
Then I came home and picked up a book I’d just bought for my daughter at our lovely local toy store, Stellabella Toys, and I cracked up. Stellabella has a really nice section of the store devoted to good books for gifts. You won’t find the rarest of the rare books there, being that this is a toy store, not a bookstore, but it’s wonderful for little gifts, and I often find things there that I’d overlook when I’m absorbed in the new releases at a bookstore. (You will find the rarest of the rare in toys and games there, and the best of the best, too. If you’re in Boston, go there.) In this case, the book was My First Winnie-the-Pooh, a board book version of A. A. Milne poems with the original Ernest H. Shepard illustrations. (I’ve linked you to Barnes and Noble just because the Stellabella website doesn’t include this, sorry!)
You’re probably wondering why all of this charming stuff about a lovely little book discovered in an enchanting local toy store would have me cracking up. This is why:
“What’s this for?” [said Bertie Wooster]
“You recite them at the concert. The ones marked with a cross. I was to have recited them, Madeline making a great point of it– you know how fond she is of the Christopher Robin poems– but now, of course, we have switched acts. And I don’t mind telling you that I feel extremely relieved. There’s one about the little blighter going hoppity-hoppity-hop which… Well, as I say, I feel extremely relieved.” [said Gussie Fink-Nottle.]
The Mating Season, by P. G. Wodehouse, from The Collector’s Wodehouse, Overlook Press, p. 106.
You see, P. G. Wodehouse and A. A. Milne, both extraordinary book-lovers and prolific authors of their generation, had a bit of a feud. Personally, I rather take Wodehouse’s side, but then I’m a passionate Wodehouse fan. I even see his point about “Hoppity”:
Christopher Robin goes
Hoppity, hoppity, hop.
And so on. (It does get better, though.) There’s a certain part of myself I have to talk to firmly in order to read that poem out loud without unseemly mirth. That might be Wodehouse’s fault for pointing out the funny side of it, though.
That being said, I adore this book, and I think that Wodehouse (as you see at the end of the article I linked to above) saw a lot to love in Milne’s books, too. My personal favourite of Milne’s poems, “The King’s Breakfast,” is not in this collection, but it’s in every sense Wodehousian: nonsensical and sensible at the same time; rather idyllic, but with absurd problems. It would fit perfectly with The Mating Season. I’ll get back to that, but first I want to say a few words about this particular book and why I love it so much.
I grew up with Winnie-the-Pooh, of course, and with Now We are Six, and with When We Were Very Young, and so much else by Milne. And when my mother started reciting “The King’s Breakfast” to the Changeling, who was enchanted, I realized it was high time to bring out the Milne for her. (Granted, my mother could recite a grocery list to the Changeling and enchant her: a) my mother has a great voice for children, and b) my Changeling loves her.) So I got a few volumes. They’re lovely, and I only ever ended up reading “The King’s Breakfast.” The format of the book is simply intended for an older child: Shepard’s exquisite black-and-white line drawings, smallish print, etc. They’re just a bit hard to flip through and find the best poem for right now with a toddler on your knee.
This board book is perfect for right now with a toddler. Larger print, a few colour illustrations (still Shepard, though, no worries!), shorter, or shortened, poems. I do miss some of the longer ones (such as “The King’s Breakfast”) but the other books are still there, after all. This is better for regular use right now: toddlers are all about right now, after all. It’s great, and I’m never turning my nose up at the novelty section of bookstores again. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’d thought of this sort of thing as “dumbing it down.” Nope. The poems are the same, but the format is so much more inviting for a toddler it makes a world of difference in introducing really good stuff at the right time in the right way. It took my excellent toy store, though, to break my habit of walking past those displays, though. (Thanks, Stellabella! And I love that you keep the stickers right near the books, now, too: one stop shopping.)
So let’s get back to my earlier point: that the Wodehousian pattern of disrupting the idyllic with an absurd but profound dilemma is apparent in Milne, at least in “The King’s Breakfast” (will the King get that butter for his bread?). Yes, you get poems like “Pooh’s Song” and “Hoppity” which really are just small observations of the life of a child… and in some cases they can be a bit inane, yes, I admit. This particular collection is largely made up of these descriptive poems, and, at their best, they are truly special: “Us Two” and “Halfway Down” are among my favourites. There’s no plot; they simply describe a child’s very specific situation with a rather lovely precision and grace.
But take a look at “Forgiven” (granted, granted, it’s abbreviated in this collection): Christopher Robin catches a beetle and puts him in a match-box; Nanny lets it out, but helps him catch it again. The horror the poor boy endures over this small-to-us, big-to-him matter is quite as acute as Wooster’s pain over having to read the poem in public. It’s a little absurd, it elicits a chuckle, but an affectionate one. It carries the very best of Milne in the sympathetic description of a childhood moment, and the very best of Wodehouse in the sweet silliness of the problem, which is perfectly and painlessly resolved in the end.
It makes me think of how I started out this post: Milne and Wodehouse are both book-lovers, and, setting that feud to one side for the moment, they do share something, I think. That article I linked to quoted Wodehouse saying, in the end, “I loved his stuff.” I suspect, if you caught him at a moment when he wasn’t right at a good part and just wanted to be left alone, Milne may have confessed that he loved Wodehouse’s stuff, too.
And the Changeling and I? Well, I know I love them both, and she loves Milne already. I suspect that Milne will simply be paving the way for Wodehouse.
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