Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick & Sophie Blackall [Award-winning picture book]

Finding Winnie: The Story of the Real Bear Who Inspired Winnie -the-Pooh
Written by Lindsay Mattick
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Orchard Books
ISBN 9781408340233 

This book is all kinds of wonderful. Beautifully produced, cleverly told, lovingly illustrated. An amazing story - all the more when you discover that it really is true and connects to another that it seems everyone knows - A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh. And illustrations that I'd heard a lot about (I follow Sophie Blackall's blog) but not seen in all their simple, straightforward storytelling glory. What a package, what a tale, what a prizewinner.

The Caldecott Medal is about as good as it gets for an illustrator in the USA. That's the big one, and this year it is Sophie Blackall's prize for her work in Finding Winnie. Her medium is Chinese ink with watercolour and she uses them expertly, with never too much going on, gently and realistically coloured with touches of cleverness to be found everywhere. 

Hardback production certainly adds to the idea that a picture book is going to be around for a long time. Publishers are much more selective these days about what the give the hardcover treatment to. Finding Winnie feels firm and weighty, with the print effect, if not the real thing, of a cloth spine and linen covers. 

Endpapers too, thank goodness. [Why do so many miss this marvellous opportunity to add value by leaving these blank, sometimes not even using colour?] Interestingly here, the front and back pages are completely different - beginning with a lovely forest scene - Winnie's beginning.

The story, told by a mother to her little boy who wants "A true story. One about a Bear"
follows Harry, a vet from Winnipeg, Canada, who leaves to go to war (looking after the horses). On his long train journey he buys a bear cub for $20 (we see a note of it in a picture of his real diary at the end) and calls him Winnie, after Winnipeg. He becomes his unit's mascot - he even appears in their group photo. 


He trains Winnie well and all the other soldiers in his unit come to love him too. But when Harry has to go to the front it is too dangerous to take Winnie so he leaves him in the care of the London Zoo. Just as well he did too, because one of the visitors to the zoo, a young boy called Christopher Robin Milne, became quite attached to Winnie, and (unbelievable but with photographic proof!) even played with him in the zoo, and was inspired to name his own bear after Winnie - becoming the very famous Winnie-the-Pooh. 


What was even more marvellous is that Lindsay Mattick, the author of the story, is the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourn the vet, and Cole, the baby in the story and in real life, is named after him. How perfect to have been able to make a book from a story in your own family. The book is tied up perfectly with a photo album at the end of the book with photos of Winnie with Harry and the other soldiers, and playing with Christopher. 


As well as being blessed with such an incredible storyline, Mattick also has a great way with words - I had to keep reading bits out to my husband. I particularly loved the way she wrote about Harry deciding what to do about the bear:
"He felt inside his pocket and said, "I shouldn't." He paced back and forth and said, "I can't." Then his heart made up his mind, and he walked up to the trapper and said, "I'll give you twenty dollars for the bear."
She uses similar phrasing in a couple of other places and it's stuck with me. I'm so looking forward to reading this aloud to a class, there are little gems throughout.



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