This past weekend the world celebrated a momentous anniversary. One hundred years ago Sunday, a Canadian soldier extended a small kindness and transformed children’s literature forever.
The soldier was Lt. Harry Colebourn, a Canadian veterinarian and soldier with the Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. He came across an orphaned female bear cub whose mother had been killed by a hunter. Colebourn knew the cub would surely die unless he acted.
Colebourn took the cub, named her “Winnipeg Bear” to commemorate the Canadian city where he had lived before the outbreak of World War I. The cub’s name was soon shortened to “Winnie.”
Winnie accompanied Colebourn to England, where the cub played with Canadian soldiers at their encampment on the Salisbury Plains.
Colebourn later donated Winnie to the London Zoo, where she served as the inspiration for A. A. Milne’s famous children’s book character. Winnie lived at the zoo until her death in 1934.
Milne’s Winnie has become one of the most beloved children’s book characters of all time. According to a recent survey aimed at promoting literacy, YouGov, a program in the United Kingdom, Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” was named the favorite book of the past 150 years.
As CBCbooks.com reports, “The iconic, honey-loving bear, which was based on the true story of a Canadian bear adopted by soldiers during the First World War, beat out other heavy hitters, including Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865), “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle (1969), J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (1937), and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl (1964).”
That’s some pretty stiff competition for a “silly old bear.” Over the years, Pooh and his friends have become the star not just of books and poems, but of feature films and of course stuffed animals. Hardly a child is born in the modern world who doesn’t know something about Winnie. Winnie, the character, at least.
Winnie the actual bear cub isn’t known quite as well outside of her native Winnipeg. A Winnipeg author, Mary Anne Appleby, aims to change that with her book, Winnie the Bear.
Appleby, whose father was a close friend of Colebourn’s son, says this anniversary is a time to celebrate a wee bear that has become a household name: “I just want to try and get this story out there as much as I can because I think, you know, in Winnipeg we’re quite familiar with it. The rest of (the world) doesn’t know it as well.”
Of course there’s another Winnie origin story — this one surrounding Milne’s real son, Christopher Robin Milne. The boy received a small stuffed bear on his first birthday. He named him Edward Bear (later renamed Winnie-the-Pooh). Following Edward came the rest of the stuffed animals, which Christopher loved and played with throughout his childhood.
According to the New York Public Library, where these stuffed animals now reside, “One day, Christopher’s father, A. A. Milne, and an artist named Ernest H. Shepard, decided that these animals, and two other imaginary friends, Owl and Rabbit, would make fine characters in a bedtime story. From that day on, Pooh and his friends have had many fanciful adventures, from Piglet’s encounter with a Heffalump to Eeyore’s loss of his tail. These stories have been embraced by millions of children and adult readers for more than 70 years.”
These beloved inspirations have a permanent home in the library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Their grand quarters are open to the public and as a library press release ensures, “Pooh and his friends are as happy as when they lived in the 100 Acre Wood.”