Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear Book Poster Image
Moving story of bear that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Origin of and inspiration for beloved children's book character Winnie-the-Pooh. World War I period detail: Horses played a part in war, veterinarians traveled with the infantry. Describes the work veterinarians do, the foods bears eat, the historical importance of diaries, family photo albums and archival records, family trees and generations. Shows types of vehicles used in the early 1900s.

Positive Messages

The book's dedication reads: "For Cole. May this story always remind you of the impact one small, loving gesture can have." The profound implication is that the little bear, saved in Canada and transported to Europe because of war, goes on to find the friendship of a young child and inspire a classic work of children's literature.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Harry is a kind veterinarian who knows how to make sick animals "feel just right." He buys the small bear cub from a trapper, thereby saving her. He always does what's best for Winnie; when his unit is sent to active fighting, he brings her to live in a zoo even though he loves and will miss her. Harry's unit helps care for and accommodate Winnie. Christopher Robin bonds with Winnie, and A.A. Milne is inspired to write his famous stories.

Violence & Scariness

The violence in WWI is implied but never shown, since Winnie's delivered to the London Zoo when "the time had come to fight." There's also violence implied when Harry first meets Winnie. The text reads: "That bear lost his mother," he thought, "and that man must be the trapper who got her." And when Cole (the young boy being told the story) asks what trappers do, his mom replies, "It's what trappers don't do. They don't raise bears."

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Lindsay Mattick's Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear, which won the 2016 Caldecott Medal for illustrator Sophie Blackall (The Baby Tree, Ivy + Bean), is a nonfiction picture book about the real-bear inspiration for the children's classic Winnie-the-Pooh -- though it reads like spellbinding fiction. The story is complex, written as three stories in one, so it could be confusing for kids under 4. The true story is told as a bedtime tale by the author, who's actually the great-granddaughter of the protagonist, and begins in Canada, when a young veterinarian, a soldier in World War I, saves a bear cub and brings her with his unit to Europe. Before they see active fighting, he gives the bear, Winnie, to the London Zoo, where she's befriended by Christopher Robin, the son of A.A. Milne. And the rest, of course, is literary history. For best effect, pair this book, very artfully illustrated and told, with the original, glorious Pooh stories.

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What's the story?

FINDING WINNIE: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS BEAR is the story of the inspiration for A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh and is told as three stories in one. The most prominent is the story of Harry Colebourn, a young Canadian veterinarian/soldier who ships off to World War I and en route saves a young bear cub whom he names Winnie, short for his hometown of Winnipeg. When his unit is sent to combat, he takes Winnie to live at the London Zoo. That story's told as a bedtime story to Harry's great-great-grandson by his mom, who supplies family details, supplemented by a family album that includes old photos and diary entries. Once Winnie's at the zoo, the book shifts to the third story, told separately though clearly connected. When A.A. Milne brings his young son, Christopher Robin, to the zoo, the boy befriends the bear and names his own stuffed bear after his new friend, giving birth to the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Is it any good?

Winner of the 2016 Caldecott Medal, this artful tale covers a lot of ground, but readers are carried along by the transporting detail in the art. The bear cub, rescued at a desolate whistle stop in Canada, is adorable, cuddly as a kitten. And the scenes of the soldiers give a graphic sense of the scope and daily detail of the war. Author Lindsay Mattick skillfully handles some difficult subjects -- what trappers do, the fate of soldiers at war -- and uses lyrical language. For example, when Harry's on the train, he watches "the land scroll by."

Illustrator Sophie Blackall cleverly orients the reader and aids the instruction. On a page about the family tree, she draws an actual tree, with each generation perched on a branch. Later, an "album" she pictures in the story segues into actual photos and diary entries from the time. This is a rich book that begs for repeated readings.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about kindness. Why did Harry save Winnie? Why did he give her up even though he loved her?

  • What details do you see in the pictures that show this is not our time but 100 years ago? Why were horses going to war? What kind of car is Harry driving? How were zoos different then from what they are today?

  • How are bear cubs and other wild animals best cared for? How can we protect them?

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